Small Business Tax Briefs: April 2018
Should you file Form SS-8 to ask the IRS to determine a worker’s status?
Classifying workers as independent contractors — rather than employees — can save businesses money and provide other benefits. But the IRS is on the lookout for businesses that do this improperly to avoid taxes and employee benefit obligations.
To find out how the IRS will classify a particular worker, businesses can file optional IRS Form SS-8, "Determination of Worker Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding." However, the IRS has a history of reflexively classifying workers as employees, and filing this form may alert the IRS that your business has classification issues — and even inadvertently trigger an employment tax audit.
Contractor vs. employee status. A business enjoys several advantages when it classifies a worker as an independent contractor rather than as an employee. For example, it isn’t required to pay payroll taxes, withhold taxes, pay benefits or comply with most wage and hour laws.
On the downside, if the IRS determines that you’ve improperly classified employees as independent contractors, you can be subject to significant back taxes, interest and penalties. That’s why filing IRS Form SS-8 for an up-front determination may sound appealing.
But because of the risks involved, instead of filing the form, it can be better to simply properly treat independent contractors so they meet the tax code rules. Among other things, this generally includes not controlling how the worker performs his or her duties, ensuring you’re not the worker’s only client, providing Form 1099 and, overall, not treating the worker like an employee.
Be prepared for workers filing the form. Workers seeking determination of their status can also file Form SS-8. Disgruntled independent contractors may do so because they feel entitled to health, retirement and other employee benefits and want to eliminate self-employment tax liabilities.
After a worker files Form SS-8, the IRS sends a letter to the business. It identifies the worker and includes a blank Form SS-8. The business is asked to complete and return it to the IRS, which will render a classification decision. But the Form SS-8 determination process doesn’t constitute an official IRS audit.
Passing IRS muster. If your business properly classifies workers as independent contractors, don’t panic if a worker files a Form SS-8. Contact us before replying to the IRS. With a proper response, you may be able to continue to classify the worker as a contractor. We also can assist you in setting up independent contractor relationships that can pass muster with the IRS.
A net operating loss on your 2017 tax return isn’t all bad news
When a company’s deductible expenses exceed its income, generally a net operating loss (NOL) occurs. If when filing your 2017 income tax return you found that your business had an NOL, there is an upside: tax benefits. But beware — the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) makes some significant changes to the tax treatment of NOLs.
Pre-TCJA law. Under pre-TCJA law, when a business incurs an NOL, the loss can be carried back up to two years, and then any remaining amount can be carried forward up to 20 years. The carryback can generate an immediate tax refund, boosting cash flow.
The business can, however, elect instead to carry the entire loss forward. If cash flow is strong, this may be more beneficial, such as if the business’s income increases substantially, pushing it into a higher tax bracket — or if tax rates increase. In both scenarios, the carryforward can save more taxes than the carryback because deductions are more powerful when higher tax rates apply.
But the TCJA has established a flat 21% tax rate for C corporation taxpayers beginning with the 2018 tax year, and the rate has no expiration date. So C corporations don’t have to worry about being pushed into a higher tax bracket unless Congress changes the corporate rates again.
Also keep in mind that the rules are more complex for pass-through entities, such as partnerships, S corporations and limited liability companies (if they elected partnership tax treatment). Each owner’s allocable share of the entity’s loss is passed through to the owners and reported on their personal returns. The tax benefit depends on each owner’s particular tax situation.
The TCJA changes. The changes the TCJA made to the tax treatment of NOLs generally aren’t favorable to taxpayers:
For NOLs arising in tax years ending after December 31, 2017, a qualifying NOL can’t be carried back at all. This may be especially detrimental to start-up businesses, which tend to generate NOLs in their early years and can greatly benefit from the cash-flow boost of a carried-back NOL. (On the plus side, the TCJA allows NOLs to be carried forward indefinitely, as opposed to the previous 20-year limit.)
For NOLs arising in tax years beginning after December 31, 2017, an NOL carryforward generally can’t be used to shelter more than 80% of taxable income in the carryforward year. (Under prior law, generally up to 100% could be sheltered.)
The differences between the effective dates for these changes may have been a mistake, and a technical correction might be made by Congress. Also be aware that, in the case of pass-through entities, owners’ tax benefits from the entity’s net loss might be further limited under the TCJA’s new "excess business loss" rules.
Complicated rules get more complicated. NOLs can provide valuable tax benefits. The rules, however, have always been complicated, and the TCJA has complicated them further. Please contact us if you’d like more information on the NOL rules and how you can maximize the tax benefit of an NOL.
TCJA changes to employee benefits tax breaks: 4 negatives and a positive
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) includes many changes that affect tax breaks for employee benefits. Among the changes are four negatives and one positive that will impact not only employees but also the businesses providing the benefits.
4 breaks curtailed. Beginning with the 2018 tax year, the TCJA reduces or eliminates tax breaks in the following areas:
1. Transportation benefits. The TCJA eliminates business deductions for the cost of providing qualified employee transportation fringe benefits, such as parking allowances, mass transit passes and van pooling. (These benefits are still tax-free to recipient employees.) It also disallows business deductions for the cost of providing commuting transportation to an employee (such as hiring a car service), unless the transportation is necessary for the employee’s safety. And it suspends through 2025 the tax-free benefit of up to $20 a month for bicycle commuting.
2. On-premises meals. The TCJA reduces to 50% a business’s deduction for providing certain meals to employees on the business premises, such as when employees work late or if served in a company cafeteria. (The deduction is scheduled for elimination in 2025.) For employees, the value of these benefits continues to be tax-free.
3. Moving expense reimbursements. The TCJA suspends through 2025 the exclusion from employees’ taxable income of a business’s reimbursements of employees’ qualified moving expenses. However, businesses generally will still be able to deduct such reimbursements.
4. Achievement awards. The TCJA eliminates the business tax deduction and corresponding employee tax exclusion for employee achievement awards that are provided in the form of cash, gift coupons or certificates, vacations, meals, lodging, tickets to sporting or theater events, securities and "other similar items." However, the tax breaks are still available for gift certificates that allow the recipient to select tangible property from a limited range of items preselected by the employer. The deduction/exclusion limits remain at up to $400 of the value of achievement awards for length of service or safety and $1,600 for awards under a written nondiscriminatory achievement plan.
1 new break. For 2018 and 2019, the TCJA creates a tax credit for wages paid to qualifying employees on family and medical leave. To qualify, a business must offer at least two weeks of annual paid family and medical leave, as described by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), to qualified employees. The paid leave must provide at least 50% of the employee’s wages. Leave required by state or local law or that was already part of the business’s employee benefits program generally doesn’t qualify.
The credit equals a minimum of 12.5% of the amount of wages paid during a leave period. The credit is increased gradually for payments above 50% of wages paid and tops out at 25%. No double-dipping: Employers can’t also deduct wages claimed for the credit.
More rules, limits and changes. Keep in mind that additional rules and limits apply to these breaks, and that the TCJA makes additional changes affecting employee benefits. Contact us for more details.
Tax document retention guidelines for small businesses
You may have breathed a sigh of relief after filing your 2017 income tax return (or requesting an extension). But if your office is strewn with reams of paper consisting of years’ worth of tax returns, receipts, canceled checks and other financial records (or your computer desktop is filled with a multitude of digital tax-related files), you probably want to get rid of what you can. Follow these retention guidelines as you clean up.
General rules. Retain records that support items shown on your tax return at least until the statute of limitations runs out — generally three years from the due date of the return or the date you filed, whichever is later. That means you can now potentially throw out records for the 2014 tax year if you filed the return for that year by the regular filing deadline. But some records should be kept longer.
For example, there’s no statute of limitations if you fail to file a tax return or file a fraudulent one. So you’ll generally want to keep copies of your returns themselves permanently, so you can show that you did file a legitimate return.
Also bear in mind that, if you understate your adjusted gross income by more than 25%, the statute of limitations period is six years.
Some specifics for businesses. Records substantiating costs and deductions associated with business property are necessary to determine the basis and any gain or loss when the property is sold. According to IRS guidelines, you should keep these for as long as you own the property, plus seven years.
The IRS recommends keeping employee records for three years after an employee has been terminated. In addition, you should maintain records that support employee earnings for at least four years. (This timeframe generally will cover varying state and federal requirements.) Also keep employment tax records for four years from the date the tax was due or the date it was paid, whichever is longer.
For travel and transportation expenses supported by mileage logs and other receipts, keep supporting documents for the three-year statute of limitations period.
Regulations for sales tax returns vary by state. Check the rules for the states where you file sales tax returns. Retention periods typically range from three to six years.
When in doubt, don’t throw it out. It’s easy to accumulate a mountain of paperwork (physical or digital) from years of filing tax returns. If you’re unsure whether you should retain a document, a good rule of thumb is to hold on to it for at least six years or, for property-related records, at least seven years after you dispose of the property. But, again, you should keep tax returns themselves permanently, and other rules or guidelines might apply in certain situations. Please contact us with any questions.
A review of significant TCJA provisions affecting small businesses
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.
- 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)
- 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.