Could an FSA offer the benefits flexibility you need?

Business owners have to make tough choices when it comes to providing benefits to their employees. Many companies, especially newer or smaller ones, may understandably prioritize flexibility. No one wants to get locked into a benefits offering that’s cumbersome to administer and expensive to maintain.

Well, there’s one possibility that has the word “flexible” built right into its name: the health care Flexible Spending Account (FSA). And these arrangements certainly offer that.

No HDHP required, employee contributions allowed

You’ve probably heard about Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs). These increasingly popular benefits options allow employees to pay for qualifying health care costs with pretax dollars. But each one comes with a critical catch: You must offer HSAs in conjunction with a high-deductible health plan (HDHP), and your business can be the only contributor to an HRA.

These limitations don’t apply to FSAs. An HDHP isn’t required, and both employees and the business itself can contribute to the account. Employee contributions are made pretax directly from their compensation, and any contributions you make as an employer aren’t included in your company’s taxable income. (Note: For employees who have an HSA, their FSA would be limited to funding certain “permitted” expenses.)

Deadline drawback

So there’s that flexibility we mentioned. You can establish an FSA relatively quickly without having to commit to an HDHP, and both you and your employees can contribute. Now the drawback: FSAs are “use it or lose it” accounts. In other words, a participant generally must forfeit any unused balance remaining in his or her account after year end.

There is, however, a way to soften this downside. Employers can include in their FSAs either a grace period of up to 2½ months or a $500 carryover amount. Doing so can add even more flexibility to the FSA concept.

If you decide to establish a health care FSA, be prepared to regularly communicate with employees about it throughout the year. When funding their accounts, participants will need to carefully estimate how much money they’re likely to spend over the course of the year. And around the end of the year you’ll need to remind them that, if funds remain in their FSAs, employees will need to incur reimbursable expenses by Dec. 31 to use up those dollars (again, assuming you don’t have a grace period or carryover amount).

No easy answers

There are no easy answers when it comes to employee benefits these days. But FSAs can be a relatively simple to administer benefit that’s appealing to employees. Let us help you assess your options and make the best choice for your business.

© 2017

2017 might be your last chance to hire veterans and claim a tax credit


With Veterans Day on November 11, it’s an especially good time to think about the sacrifices veterans have made for us and how we can support them. One way businesses can support veterans is to hire them. The Work Opportunity tax credit (WOTC) can help businesses do just that, but it may not be available for hires made after this year.

As released by the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on November 2, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would eliminate the WOTC for hires after December 31, 2017. So you may want to consider hiring qualifying veterans before year end.

The WOTC up close

You can claim the WOTC for a portion of wages paid to a new hire from a qualifying target group. Among the target groups are eligible veterans who receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as “food stamps”), who have a service-related disability or who have been unemployed for at least four weeks. The maximum credit depends in part on which of these factors apply:

  • Food stamp recipient or short-term unemployed (at least 4 weeks but less than 6 months): $2,400
  •  Disabled: $4,800
  • Long-term unemployed (at least 6 months): $5,600
  • Disabled and long-term unemployed: $9,600

The amount of the credit also depends on the wages paid to the veteran and the number of hours the veteran worked during the first year of employment.

You aren’t subject to a limit on the number of eligible veterans you can hire. For example, if you hire 10 disabled long-term-unemployed veterans, the credit can be as much as $96,000.

Other considerations

Before claiming the WOTC, you generally must obtain certification from a “designated local agency” (DLA) that the hired individual is indeed a target group member. You must submit IRS Form 8850, “Pre-Screening Notice and Certification Request for the Work Opportunity Credit,” to the DLA no later than the 28th day after the individual begins work for you.

Also be aware that veterans aren’t the only target groups from which you can hire and claim the WOTC. But in many cases hiring a veteran will provided the biggest credit. Plus, research assembled by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University suggests that the skills and traits of people with a successful military employment track record make for particularly good civilian employees.  

Looking ahead

It’s still uncertain whether the WOTC will be repealed. The House bill likely will be revised as lawmakers negotiate on tax reform, and it’s also possible Congress will be unable to pass tax legislation this year. Under current law, the WOTC is scheduled to be available through 2019.

But if you’re looking to hire this year, hiring veterans is worth considering for both tax and nontax reasons. Contact us for more information on the WOTC or on other year-end tax planning strategies in light of possible tax law changes.

© 2017

4 tips on making your marketing emails a blast


No business owner wants to send out spam. Even the term “email blast,” the practice of launching a flurry of targeted messages at customers and prospects, has mixed connotations these days.

Yet email remains a viable and even necessary communications channel. Here are four tips on making your marketing emails a blast (in the fun and informative sense) and keeping them out of recipients’ spam folders:

1. Craft a catchy subject line. It should be no longer than eight words and shouldn’t be in all caps. Put yourself in the customer’s place, particularly considering his or her demographic, and ask yourself whether you would open the email. Also, clearly indicate the message’s content.

Example: Office Supplies Blowout! 30% Year-End Discount

2. Write a compelling headline. The first thing readers see upon opening an email is the headline, so make it:

  • Different from the subject line,
  • Short (four or five words),
  • A larger font size than the body of the message, and
  • Persuasive.

Example: Rock Your Stockroom Now

3. Make it quick, keep it simple. Most people will read very little text and may not wait for slow-loading images. So think of each marketing email as an “elevator speech,” a quick and concise pitch for specific products or services. And keep images relatively small and easy to download.

Customers want to fulfill their needs at a reasonable price. Don’t expect them to search for answers about whether you can meet these expectations. Tell them why they should buy.

Example: Buying office supplies in bulk now will save you time and money throughout next year.

4. Close with a “call to action.” Instill a sense of urgency in readers by setting a deadline and telling them precisely what to do. Otherwise, they may interpret the email as merely informational and file it away for reference or simply delete it. Be sure to include clear, “clickable” contact info.

Example: Offer expires November 30. Call or visit our website now!

Speaking of calls to action, please contact our firm for help ensuring your marketing initiatives are cost effective.

© 2017

Research credit can offset a small business’s payroll taxes

Does your small business engage in qualified research activities? If so, you may be eligible for a research tax credit that you can use to offset your federal payroll tax bill.

This relatively new privilege allows the research credit to benefit small businesses that may not generate enough taxable income to use the credit to offset their federal income tax bills, such as those that are still in the unprofitable start-up phase where they owe little or no federal income tax.

QSB status

Under the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015, a qualified small business (QSB) can elect to use up to $250,000 of its research credits to reduce the Social Security tax portion of its federal payroll tax bills. Under the old rules, QSBs could use the credit to offset only their federal income tax bills. However, many small businesses owe little or no federal income tax, especially small start-ups that tend to incur significant research expenses.

For the purposes of the research credit, a QSB is generally defined as a business with:

  • Gross receipts of less than $5 million for the current tax year, and
  • No gross receipts for any taxable year preceding the five-taxable-year period ending with the current tax year.

The allowable payroll tax reduction credit can’t exceed the employer portion of the Social Security tax liability imposed for any calendar quarter. Any excess credit can be carried forward to the next calendar quarter, subject to the Social Security tax limitation for that quarter.

Research activities that qualify

To be eligible for the research credit, a business must have engaged in “qualified” research activities. To be considered “qualified,” activities must meet the following four-factor test:

1. The purpose must be to create new (or improve existing) functionality, performance, reliability or quality of a product, process, technique, invention, formula or computer software that will be sold or used in your trade or business.
2. There must be an intention to eliminate uncertainty.
3. There must be a process of experimentation. In other words, there must be a trial-and-error process.
4. The process of experimentation must fundamentally rely on principles of physical or biological science, engineering or computer science.

Expenses that qualify for the credit include wages for time spent engaging in supporting, supervising or performing qualified research, supplies consumed in the process of experimentation, and 65% of any contracted outside research expenses.

Complex rules

The ability to use the research credit to reduce payroll tax is a welcome change for eligible small businesses, but the rules are complex and we’ve only touched on the basics here. We can help you determine whether you qualify and, if you do, assist you with making the election for your business and filing payroll tax returns to take advantage of the new privilege.

© 2017

Minimize inventory, services to make your financials shine

Your business financials — where they stand currently and where they might be going next year — are incredibly important. Obviously, sales and expenses play enormous roles in the strength of your position. But a fundamental and often-overlooked way of making your cash flow statement shine is to minimize inventory or services so you have just enough to fulfill demand.

Sprucing up

Carrying too much inventory can devastate a budget as the value of the surplus items drops throughout the year. In turn, your financial statements simply won’t look as good as they could. Taking stock and perhaps cutting back on excess inventory:

• Reduces interest and storage costs,
• Improves your ability to prevent fraud and theft, and
• Increases your capacity to track what’s in stock.

One item to perhaps budget for here: upgraded inventory tracking and ordering software. Newer applications can help you better forecast demand, minimize overstocking, and even share data with suppliers to improve accuracy and efficiency.

Serving wisely

If yours is a more service-oriented business, you can apply a similar approach. Check into whether you’re “overstocking” on services that just aren’t adding enough revenue to the bottom line. Keeping infrastructure and, yes, even employees in place that aren’t improving profitability is much like leaving items on the shelves that aren’t selling.

Making improvements may require some tough calls. You might have long-time customers to whom you provide certain services that just aren’t substantially profitable anymore. If it’s getting to the point where your company might start losing money on these customers, you may have to discontinue the services and sacrifice their business.

You can ease difficult transitions like this by referring customers to another, reputable service provider. Meanwhile, of course, your business should be looking to either find new service areas to generate revenue or expand existing services.

Brightening the future

A variety of threats can cast a dark shadow on your company’s financial statements. Keeping your inventory or service selection in tip-top shape can help ensure that the numbers ― and your business’s future ― look bright. Contact our firm for help specific to your situation.

© 2017

How to maximize deductions for business real estate

Currently, a valuable income tax deduction related to real estate is for depreciation, but the depreciation period for such property is long and land itself isn’t depreciable. Whether real estate is occupied by your business or rented out, here’s how you can maximize your deductions.

Segregate personal property from buildings

Generally, buildings and improvements to them must be depreciated over 39 years (27.5 years for residential rental real estate and certain other types of buildings or improvements). But personal property, such as furniture and equipment, generally can be depreciated over much shorter periods. Plus, for the tax year such assets are acquired and put into service, they may qualify for 50% bonus depreciation or Section 179 expensing (up to $510,000 for 2017, subject to a phaseout if total asset acquisitions for the tax year exceed $2.03 million).

If you can identify and document the items that are personal property, the depreciation deductions for those items generally can be taken more quickly. In some cases, items you’d expect to be considered parts of the building actually can qualify as personal property. For example, depending on the circumstances, lighting, wall and floor coverings, and even plumbing and electrical systems, may qualify.

Carve out improvements from land

As noted above, the cost of land isn’t depreciable. But the cost of improvements to land is depreciable. Separating out land improvement costs from the land itself by identifying and documenting those improvements can provide depreciation deductions. Common examples include landscaping, roads, and, in some cases, grading and clearing.

Convert land into a deductible asset

Because land isn’t depreciable, you may want to consider real estate investment alternatives that don’t involve traditional ownership. Such options can allow you to enjoy tax deductions for land costs that provide a similar tax benefit to depreciation deductions. For example, you can lease land long-term. Rent you pay under such a “ground lease” is deductible.

Another option is to purchase an “estate-for-years,” under which you own the land for a set period and an unrelated party owns the interest in the land that begins when your estate-for-years ends. You can deduct the cost of the estate-for-years over its duration.

More limits and considerations

There are additional limits and considerations involved in these strategies. Also keep in mind that tax reform legislation could affect these techniques. For example, immediate deductions could become more widely available for many costs that currently must be depreciated. If you’d like to learn more about saving income taxes with business real estate, please contact us.

© 2017

Valuation often affects succession plans in hard-to-see ways

Any business owner developing a succession plan should rightfully assume that regular business valuations are a must. When envisioning the valuation process, you’re likely to focus on its end result: a reasonable, defensible value estimate of your business as of a certain date. But lurking beneath this number is a variety of often hard-to-see issues.

Estate tax liability

One sometimes blurry issue is the valuation implications of whether you intend to transfer the business to the next generation during your lifetime, at your death or upon your spouse’s death. If, for example, you decide to bequeath the company to your spouse, no estate tax will be due upon your death because of the marital deduction (as long as your spouse is a U.S. citizen). But estate tax may be due on your spouse’s death, depending on the business’s value and estate tax laws at the time.

Speaking of which, President Trump and congressional Republicans have called for an estate tax repeal under the “Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code” issued in late September. But there’s no guarantee such a provision will pass and, even if it does, the repeal might be only temporary.

So an owner may be tempted to minimize the company’s value to reduce the future estate tax liability on the spouse’s death. But be aware that businesses that appear to have been undervalued in an effort to minimize taxes will raise a red flag with the IRS.

Inactive heirs and retirement

Bear in mind, too, that your heirs may have different views of the business’s proper value. This is particularly true of “inactive heirs” ― those who won’t inherit the business and whose share, therefore, may need to be “equalized” with other assets, such as insurance proceeds or real estate. Your appraiser will need to clearly understand the valuation’s purpose and your estate plan.

When (or if) you plan to retire is another major issue to be resolved. If you want your children to take over, but you need to free up cash for retirement, you may be able to sell shares to successors. Several methods (such as using trusts) can provide tax advantages as well as help the children fund a business purchase.

Abundant complexities

Obtaining a valuation in relation to your succession plan involves much more than establishing a sale price, transitioning ownership (or selling the company), and sauntering off to retirement. The details are many and potential conflicts abundant. Let us help you anticipate and manage these complexities to ensure a smooth succession.

© 2017

Which tax-advantaged health account should be part of your benefits package?

On October 12, an executive order was signed that, among other things, seeks to expand Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs). HRAs are just one type of tax-advantaged account you can provide your employees to help fund their health care expenses. Also available are Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs). Which one should you include in your benefits package? Here’s a look at the similarities and differences:

HRA. An HRA is an employer-sponsored account that reimburses employees for medical expenses. Contributions are excluded from taxable income and there’s no government-set limit on their annual amount. But only you as the employer can contribute to an HRA; employees aren’t allowed to contribute.

Also, the Affordable Care Act puts some limits on how HRAs can be offered. The October 12 executive order directs the Secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services to consider proposing regs or revising guidance to “increase the usability of HRAs,” expand the ability of employers to offer HRAs to their employees, and “allow HRAs to be used in conjunction with nongroup coverage.”

HSA. If you provide employees a qualified high-deductible health plan (HDHP), you can also sponsor HSAs for them. Pretax contributions can be made by both you and the employee. The 2017 contribution limits (employer and employee combined) are $3,400 for self-only coverage and $6,750 for family coverage. The 2018 limits are $3,450 and $6,900, respectively. Plus, for employees age 55 or older, an additional $1,000 can be contributed.

The employee owns the account, which can bear interest or be invested, growing tax-deferred similar to an IRA. Withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free, and employees can carry over a balance from year to year.

FSA. Regardless of whether you provide an HDHP, you can sponsor FSAs that allow employees to redirect pretax income up to a limit you set (not to exceed $2,600 in 2017 and expected to remain the same for 2018). You, as the employer, can make additional contributions, generally either by matching employer contributions up to 100% or by contributing up to $500. The plan pays or reimburses employees for qualified medical expenses.

What employees don’t use by the plan year’s end, they generally lose — though you can choose to have your plan allow employees to roll over up to $500 to the next year or give them a 2 1/2-month grace period to incur expenses to use up the previous year’s contribution. If employees have an HSA, their FSA must be limited to funding certain “permitted” expenses.

If you’d like to offer your employees a tax-advantaged way to fund health care costs but are unsure which type of account is best for your business and your employees, please contact us. We can provide the additional details you need to make a sound decision.

© 2017

4 ways to get (and keep) your business data in order

With so much data flying around these days, it’s easy for a company of any size to get overwhelmed. If something important falls through the cracks, say a contract renewal or outstanding bill, your financial standing and reputation could suffer. Here are four ways to get — and keep — your business data in order:

1. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Look at your data in broad categories and see whether and how you can simplify things. Sometimes refiling documents under basic designations such as “vendors,” “leases” and “employee contracts” can help you get better perspective on your information. In other cases, you may need to realign your network or file storage to more closely follow how your company operates today.

2. Implement a data storage policy. A formal effort toward getting organized can help you target what’s wrong and determine what to do about it. In creating this policy, spell out which information you must back up, how much money you’ll spend on this effort, how often backups must occur and where you’ll store backups.

3. Reconsider the cloud. Web-based data storage, now commonly known as “the cloud,” has been around for years. It allows you to store files and even access software on a secure remote server. Your company may already use the cloud to some extent. If so, review how you’re using the cloud, whether your security measures are adequate, and if now might be a good time to renegotiate with your vendor or find a new one.

4. Don’t forget about email. Much of your company’s precious data may not be in files or spreadsheets but in emails. Although it’s been around for decades, this medium has grown in significance recently as email continues to play a starring role in many legal proceedings. If you haven’t already, establish an email retention policy to specify everyone’s responsibilities when it comes to creating, organizing and deleting (or not deleting) emails.

Virtually every company operating today depends on data, big and small, to compete in its marketplace and achieve profitability. Please contact us regarding cost-effective ways to store, organize and deploy your company’s mission-critical information.

© 2017

Accelerate your retirement savings with a cash balance plan

Business owners may not be able to set aside as much as they’d like in tax-advantaged retirement plans. Typically, they’re older and more highly compensated than their employees, but restrictions on contributions to 401(k) and profit-sharing plans can hamper retirement-planning efforts. One solution may be a cash balance plan.

Defined benefit plan with a twist

The two most popular qualified retirement plans — 401(k) and profit-sharing plans — are defined contribution plans. These plans specify the amount that goes into an employee’s retirement account today, typically a percentage of compensation or a specific dollar amount.

In contrast, a cash balance plan is a defined benefit plan, which specifies the amount a participant will receive in retirement. But unlike traditional defined benefit plans, such as pensions, cash balance plans express those benefits in the form of a 401(k)-style account balance, rather than a formula tied to years of service and salary history.

The plan allocates annual “pay credits” and “interest credits” to hypothetical employee accounts. This allows participants to earn benefits more uniformly over their careers, and provides a clearer picture of benefits than a traditional pension plan.

Greater savings for owners

A cash balance plan offers significant advantages for business owners — particularly those who are behind on their retirement saving and whose employees are younger and lower-paid. In 2017, the IRS limits employer contributions and employee deferrals to defined contribution plans to $54,000 ($60,000 for employees age 50 or older). And nondiscrimination rules, which prevent a plan from unfairly favoring highly compensated employees (HCEs), can reduce an owner’s contributions even further.

But cash balance plans aren’t bound by these limits. Instead, as defined benefit plans, they’re subject to a cap on annual benefit payouts in retirement (currently, $216,000), and the nondiscrimination rules require that only benefits for HCEs and non-HCEs be comparable.

Contributions may be as high as necessary to fund those benefits. Therefore, a company may make sizable contributions on behalf of owner/employees approaching retirement (often as much as three or four times defined contribution limits), and relatively smaller contributions on behalf of younger, lower-paid employees.

There are some potential risks. The most notable one is that, unlike with profit-sharing plans, you can’t reduce or suspend contributions during difficult years. So, before implementing a cash balance plan, it’s critical to ensure that your company’s cash flow will be steady enough to meet its funding obligations.

Right for you?

Although cash balance plans can be more expensive than defined contribution plans, they’re a great way to turbocharge your retirement savings. We can help you decide whether one might be right for you.

© 2017