Research credit available to some businesses for the first time

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) didn’t change the federal tax credit for “increasing research activities,” but several TCJA provisions have an indirect impact on the credit. As a result, the research credit may be available to some businesses for the first time.

AMT reform

Previously, corporations subject to alternative minimum tax (AMT) couldn’t offset the research credit against their AMT liability, which erased the benefits of the credit (although they could carry unused research credits forward for up to 20 years and use them in non-AMT years). By eliminating corporate AMT for tax years beginning after 2017, the TCJA removed this obstacle.

Now that the corporate AMT is gone, unused research credits from prior tax years can be offset against a corporation’s regular tax liability and may even generate a refund (subject to certain restrictions). So it’s a good idea for corporations to review their research activities in recent years and amend prior returns if necessary to ensure they claim all the research credits to which they’re entitled.

The TCJA didn’t eliminate individual AMT, but it did increase individuals’ exemption amounts and exemption phaseout thresholds. As a result, fewer owners of sole proprietorships and pass-through businesses are subject to AMT, allowing more of them to enjoy the benefits of the research credit, too.

More to consider

By reducing corporate and individual tax rates, the TCJA also will increase research credits for many businesses. Why? Because the tax code, to prevent double tax benefits, requires businesses to reduce their deductible research expenses by the amount of the credit.

To avoid this result (which increases taxable income), businesses can elect to reduce the credit by an amount calculated at the highest corporate rate that eliminates the double benefit. Because the highest corporate rate has been reduced from 35% to 21%, this amount is lower and, therefore, the research credit is higher.

Keep in mind that the TCJA didn’t affect certain research credit benefits for smaller businesses. Pass-through businesses can still claim research credits against AMT if their average gross receipts are $50 million or less. And qualifying start-ups without taxable income can still claim research credits against up to $250,000 in payroll taxes.

Do your research

If your company engages in qualified research activities, now’s a good time to revisit the credit to be sure you’re taking full advantage of its benefits.

© 2018

How auditors assess risk when preparing financial statements

 

Every year, your audit firm will conduct a fresh risk assessment before the start of fieldwork. Why? Because your auditor wants to mitigate the risk of expressing an incorrect opinion regarding the accuracy and integrity of the company’s financial statements. Inadvertently signing off on financial statements that contain material misstatements can open a Pandora’s box of risks — from shareholder lawsuits to increased regulatory oversight.

3-prong assessment

Audit risk is a combination of three components:

1. Control risk. Sometimes a company’s internal controls are inadequate to prevent or detect material misstatements. Control risk increases when the company fails to deploy and enforce effective internal controls, or when employees or third parties override them without the company discovering their actions.

2. Inherent risk. This term refers to susceptibility to a material misstatement, regardless of whether the company has strong internal controls. Certain transactions and industries present greater inherent risk than others.

For example, companies operating in developing countries face a greater threat of bribery and corruption by government officials, regardless of the internal controls they put in place. Inherent risk is also greater when accounting transactions are complex or involve a high degree of judgment.

3. Detection risk. Audit procedures are designed to uncover material misstatements. Detection risk is high when there’s a high probability that substantive audit procedures will fail to detect a material misstatement. When detection risk is elevated, the auditor might, for example, test a larger sample of transactions to mitigate audit risk.

Control risk and inherent risk stem from a company’s industry and actions. Conversely, detection risk is typically managed by the audit team.

Customized audit procedures

The auditor’s role is to attest to your company’s financial statements. Specifically, your audit firm assures that your financial statements are “fairly presented in all material respects, compliant with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and free from material misstatement.”

Unqualified (or clean) audit opinions require detailed substantive procedures, such as confirming accounts receivable balances with customers and conducting test counts of inventory in the company’s warehouse. Generally, the more rigorous the auditor’s substantive procedures, the lower the likelihood of the audit team failing to detect a material misstatement.

Collaborative effort

Audit season is coming soon for calendar year-end entities. Before the start of fieldwork, let’s discuss changes in your business operations, accounting methods and industry conditions, along with other factors, that could create audit risk. We’ll adjust our audit programs accordingly to ensure that your financial statements are prepared with the highest level of quality and efficiency.

© 2018

Selling your business? Defer — and possibly reduce — tax with an installment sale

 

You’ve spent years building your company and now are ready to move on to something else, whether launching a new business, taking advantage of another career opportunity or retiring. Whatever your plans, you want to get the return from your business that you’ve earned from all of the time and money you’ve put into it.

That means not only getting a good price, but also minimizing the tax hit on the proceeds. One option that can help you defer tax and perhaps even reduce it is an installment sale.

Tax benefits

With an installment sale, you don’t receive a lump sum payment when the deal closes. Instead, you receive installment payments over a period of time, spreading the gain over a number of years.

This generally defers tax, because you pay most of the tax liability as you receive the payments. Usually tax deferral is beneficial, but it could be especially beneficial if it would allow you to stay under the thresholds for triggering the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) or the 20% long-term capital gains rate.

For 2018, taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over $200,000 per year ($250,000 for married filing jointly and $125,000 for married filing separately) will owe NIIT on some or all of their investment income. And the 20% long-term capital gains rate kicks in when 2018 taxable income exceeds $425,800 for singles, $452,400 for heads of households and $479,000 for joint filers (half that for separate filers).

Other benefits

An installment sale also might help you close a deal or get a better price for your business. For instance, an installment sale might appeal to a buyer that lacks sufficient cash to pay the price you’re looking for in a lump sum.

Or a buyer might be concerned about the ongoing success of your business without you at the helm or because of changing market or other economic factors. An installment sale that includes a contingent amount based on the business’s performance might be the solution.

Tax risks

An installment sale isn’t without tax risk for sellers. For example, depreciation recapture must be reported as gain in the year of sale, no matter how much cash you receive. So you could owe tax that year without receiving enough cash proceeds from the sale to pay the tax. If depreciation recapture is an issue, be sure you have cash from another source to pay the tax.

It’s also important to keep in mind that, if tax rates increase, the overall tax could end up being more. With tax rates currently quite low historically, there might be a greater chance that they could rise in the future. Weigh this risk carefully against the potential benefits of an installment sale.

Pluses and minuses

As you can see, installment sales have both pluses and minuses. To determine whether one is right for you and your business — and find out about other tax-smart options — please contact us.

© 2018

Assessing the effectiveness of internal controls

 

Strong internal controls can help prevent and detect fraud. That’s why Section 404(a) of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) requires a public company’s management to annually assess the effectiveness of internal controls over financial reporting. And Sec. 404(b) requires the company’s independent auditors to provide an attestation report on management’s assessment of internal controls. Some smaller entities may be exempt from the latter requirement — but not the former one.

Burdensome for smaller entities

When the SEC published the regulations, smaller public companies told the SEC that the costs of complying with Sec. 404(b) would outweigh the benefits for investors. While the SEC explored ways to ease the compliance burden, the compliance deadline for Sec. 404(b) was repeatedly delayed for nonaccelerated filers — companies with a public float of less than $75 million on the last business day of their most recent second fiscal quarter.

In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act instructed the SEC to permanently exempt nonaccelerated filers from SOX Sec. 404(b). Absent this exemption, nonaccelerated filers would have been required to comply with Sec. 404(b) beginning with fiscal years ending on or after June 15, 2010.

New definition provides no new Sec. 404(b) relief

Earlier this year, the SEC expanded its definition of “smaller reporting companies” from companies with a public float of less than $75 million to those with a public float of less than $250 million. This change will allow nearly 1,000 more companies to qualify for a lighter set of disclosure rules available to smaller reporting companies. However, the SEC did not raise the public float thresholds for when a company qualifies as an accelerated filer. This means the $75 million threshold still applies in relation to the Sec. 404(b) exemption.

SEC Commissioners Michael Piwowar and Hester Peirce favored raising the accelerated filer threshold to $250 million to expand the number of companies that would be exempt from Sec. 404(b). But, based on feedback from auditors and investor advocate groups, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton decided to keep the current threshold at $75 million — at least for now.

It’s also important to note that not all companies with a public float of less than $75 million are considered nonaccelerated filers. If a company’s public float drops below $75 million, it continues to be an accelerated filer until it drops below $50 million, and thereby “exits” accelerated status.

Still on the hook

Even if your company is exempt from Sec.404(b), you’re still responsible for assessing the effectiveness of internal controls over financial reporting pursuant to Sec. 404(a). Contact us for any questions about complying with the SOX rules or for information regarding best practices in internal controls.

© 2018

Now’s the time to review your business expenses

 

As we approach the end of the year, it’s a good idea to review your business’s expenses for deductibility. At the same time, consider whether your business would benefit from accelerating certain expenses into this year.

Be sure to evaluate the impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which reduces or eliminates many deductions. In some cases, it may be necessary or desirable to change your expense and reimbursement policies.

What’s deductible, anyway?

There’s no master list of deductible business expenses in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). Although some deductions are expressly authorized or excluded, most are governed by the general rule of IRC Sec. 162, which permits businesses to deduct their “ordinary and necessary” expenses.

An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted in your industry. A necessary expense is one that is helpful and appropriate for your business. (It need not be indispensable.) Even if an expense is ordinary and necessary, it may not be deductible if the IRS considers it lavish or extravagant.

What did the TCJA change?

The TCJA contains many provisions that affect the deductibility of business expenses. Significant changes include these deductions:

Meals and entertainment. The act eliminates most deductions for entertainment expenses, but retains the 50% deduction for business meals. What about business meals provided in connection with nondeductible entertainment? In a recent notice, the IRS clarified that such meals continue to be 50% deductible, provided they’re purchased separately from the entertainment or their cost is separately stated on invoices or receipts.

Transportation. The act eliminates most deductions for qualified transportation fringe benefits, such as parking, vanpooling and transit passes. This change may lead some employers to discontinue these benefits, although others will continue to provide them because 1) they’re a valuable employee benefit (they’re still tax-free to employees) or 2) they’re required by local law.

Employee expenses. The act suspends employee deductions for unreimbursed job expenses — previously treated as miscellaneous itemized deductions — through 2025. Some businesses may want to implement a reimbursement plan for these expenses. So long as the plan meets IRS requirements, reimbursements are deductible by the business and tax-free to employees.

Need help?

The deductibility of certain expenses, such as employee wages or office supplies, is obvious. In other cases, it may be necessary to consult IRS rulings or court cases for guidance. For assistance, please contact us.

© 2018

Audit opinions: How your financial statements measure up

 

Audit opinions differ depending on the information available, financial viability, errors discovered during audit procedures and other limiting factors. The type of opinion your auditor issues tells stakeholders whether you’re in compliance with accounting rules and likely to continue operating as a going concern.

The basics

To find out what type of audit opinion you’ve received, scan the first page of your financial statements. Known as the “audit opinion letter,” this is where your auditor states whether the financial statements are fairly presented in all material respects, compliant with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and free from material misstatement. But the opinion doesn’t constitute an endorsement or evaluation of the company’s financial results.

Most audit opinion letters consist of three paragraphs. The introductory paragraph identifies the company, accounting period and auditor’s responsibilities. The second discusses the scope of work performed. The third paragraph contains the audit opinion.

In general, there are four types of audit opinions, ranked from most to least desirable.

1. Unqualified. A clean “unqualified” opinion is the most common (and desirable). Here the auditor states that the company’s financial condition, position and operations are fairly presented in the financial statements.

2. Qualified. The auditor expresses a qualified opinion if the financial statements appear to contain a small deviation from GAAP, but are otherwise fairly presented. To illustrate: An auditor will “qualify” his or her opinion if a borrower incorrectly estimates warranty expense, but the exception doesn’t affect the rest of the financial statements.

Qualified opinions are also given if the company’s management limits the scope of audit procedures. For example, a qualified opinion may result if you deny the auditor access to a warehouse to observe year-end inventory counts.

3. Adverse. When an auditor issues an adverse opinion, there are material exceptions to GAAP that affect the financial statements as a whole. Here the auditor indicates that the financial statements aren’t presented fairly. Typically, an adverse opinion letter contains a fourth paragraph that outlines these exceptions.

4. Disclaimer. Even more alarming to lenders and investors is a disclaimer opinion. Disclaimers occur when an auditor gives up midaudit. Reasons for disclaimers may include significant scope limitations, material doubt about the company’s going-concern status and uncertainties within the subject company itself. A disclaimer opinion letter briefly outlines the auditor’s reasons for throwing in the towel.

Ready, set, audit

Before fieldwork starts for the audit of your 2018 financial statements, let’s discuss any foreseeable scope limitations and possible deviations from GAAP. Depending on the situation, we may be able to recommend corrective actions and help you proactively communicate with stakeholders about the reasons for a less-than-perfect audit opinion.

© 2018

Could a cost segregation study help you accelerate depreciation deductions?

 

Businesses that acquire, construct or substantially improve a building — or did so in previous years — should consider a cost segregation study. It may allow you to accelerate depreciation deductions, thus reducing taxes and boosting cash flow. And the potential benefits are now even greater due to enhancements to certain depreciation-related breaks under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

Real property vs. tangible personal property

IRS rules generally allow you to depreciate commercial buildings over 39 years (27½ years for residential properties). Most times, you’ll depreciate a building’s structural components — such as walls, windows, HVAC systems, elevators, plumbing and wiring — along with the building. Personal property — such as equipment, machinery, furniture and fixtures — is eligible for accelerated depreciation, usually over five or seven years. And land improvements — fences, outdoor lighting and parking lots, for example — are depreciable over 15 years.

Too often, businesses allocate all or most of a building’s acquisition or construction costs to real property, overlooking opportunities to allocate costs to shorter-lived personal property or land improvements. In some cases — computers or furniture, for instance — the distinction between real and personal property is obvious. But often the line between the two is less clear. Items that appear to be part of a building may in fact be personal property, like removable wall and floor coverings, removable partitions, awnings and canopies, window treatments, signs and decorative lighting.

In addition, certain items that otherwise would be treated as real property may qualify as personal property if they serve more of a business function than a structural purpose. This includes reinforced flooring to support heavy manufacturing equipment, electrical or plumbing installations required to operate specialized equipment, or dedicated cooling systems for data processing rooms.

A cost segregation study combines accounting and engineering techniques to identify building costs that are properly allocable to tangible personal property rather than real property. Although the relative costs and benefits of a cost segregation study depend on your particular facts and circumstances, it can be a valuable investment.

Depreciation break enhancements

Last year’s TCJA enhances certain depreciation-related tax breaks, which may also enhance the benefits of a cost segregation study. Among other things, the act permanently increased limits on Section 179 expensing. Sec. 179 allows you to immediately deduct the entire cost of qualifying equipment or other fixed assets up to specified thresholds.

The TCJA also expanded 15-year-property treatment to apply to qualified improvement property. Previously this break was limited to qualified leasehold-improvement, retail-improvement and restaurant property. And it temporarily increased first-year bonus depreciation to 100% (from 50%).

Assess the potential savings

Cost segregation studies may yield substantial benefits, but they’re not right for every business. To find out whether a study would be worthwhile for yours, contact us for help assessing the potential tax savings.

© 2018

Should cloud computing setup costs be expensed or capitalized?

Companies will be able to capitalize, or spread out the costs of, setting up pricey business systems that operate on cloud technology under an update to U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Here are the details.

FASB responds to business complaints

Over the last three years, businesses have complained to the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) about the different accounting treatment for cloud-based services vs. those operated on physical servers onsite. Businesses told the FASB that the economics of these arrangements are virtually the same.

As more businesses moved to cloud-based business applications, those complaints grew louder. So, in August, the FASB published Accounting Standards Update (ASU) No. 2018-15, Intangibles — Goodwill and Other — Internal-Use Software (Subtopic 350-40): Customer’s Accounting for Implementation Costs Incurred in a Cloud Computing Arrangement That Is a Service Contract.

Existing GAAP “resulted in unnecessary complexity and needed to be updated to reflect emerging transactions in cloud computing arrangements that are service contracts,” FASB Chairman Russell Golden said in a statement. “To address this diversity in practice, this standard aligns the accounting for implementation costs of hosting arrangements — regardless of whether they convey a license to the hosted software.”

Old rules, new rules

Under existing GAAP, the accounting for services managed in the cloud differs depending on the type of contract a business has with a software provider. When a cloud computing (or hosting) arrangement doesn’t include a software license, the arrangement must be accounted for as a service contract. This means businesses must expense the costs as incurred.

Under the updated guidance, businesses will be able to treat the expenses of reconfiguring their systems and setting up cloud-managed business services as long-term assets and amortize them over the life of the arrangement.

The update also will align the accounting for implementation costs for cloud-managed systems with the accounting for costs associated with developing or obtaining internal-use software. Businesses will have to record the expense related to the capitalized implementation costs in the same line item in the income statement as the expense for the fees for the hosting arrangement.

Coming soon

The update is effective for public businesses for fiscal years beginning after December 15, 2019, and interim periods within those fiscal years. (This means 2020 for calendar-year companies.) For all other entities, the update is effective for annual reporting periods beginning after December 15, 2020, and interim periods within annual periods beginning after December 15, 2021. Early adoption is also permitted.

© 2018

Auditing royalty agreements

 

Companies often grant licenses to others allowing them to use intellectual property — such as a patent or proprietary computer code — in exchange for royalties. Licensors can hire an external audit firm to ensure the licensee pays the correct royalty rate and amount. Here’s how the audit process works.

The agreement

The parties’ attorneys usually create a royalty agreement that governs the use of the intellectual property. This legal contract between the licensor and licensee details the terms of the arrangement. It spells out how the licensee may use the asset, the duration of the license and how much the licensee agrees to pay the licensor in royalties for the right to use the asset.

Unfortunately, royalty payments sometimes fall short of the agreed-upon amount. This may be due to a clerical error, confusion regarding the agreement’s terms — or even fraud. To detect and deter shortfalls, most contracts include a “right-to-audit” clause, meaning that the licensor retains the legal right to hire an outside firm to audit the licensee’s payments to confirm compliance with the terms detailed in the agreement.

The auditor’s role

When auditing royalty agreements, CPAs typically perform the following six steps:

1. Review the agreement to understand its scope, including the asset under license, the duration of the contract, prohibited uses and the royalty rate.

2. Analyze sales data used to derive royalty payments to date. Depending on the type of asset under license, the audit team may request production and inventory records.

3. Perform a detailed walk-through of the process the licensee follows to identify, track and report sales subject to a royalty payment.

4. Conduct random sampling of sales data to ensure the licensee applies the correct rate to generate the royalty payment.

5. Review sales and royalty payment trends to confirm that the licensee’s sales align with the royalty payments.

6. Gather individual invoices from key customers to locate and confirm that sales transactions subject to royalties actually generated a royalty payment.

Usually, the licensor assumes the cost of the royalty audit. However, some agreements include a clause that requires the licensee to assume responsibility for the cost of the audit if the audit uncovers underpayment of royalties by a certain margin.

Keep licensees on their toes

Most licensing arrangements function without a hitch. But a minor error or oversight could result in a significant shortfall in royalty payments. Periodic royalty audits can prevent small, but honest, mistakes from spiraling out of control — and help reduce the temptation for dishonest licensees to commit fraud. Contact us to discuss the benefits of auditing your royalty agreements.

© 2018

Businesses aren’t immune to tax identity theft

 

Tax identity theft may seem like a problem only for individual taxpayers. But, according to the IRS, increasingly businesses are also becoming victims. And identity thieves have become more sophisticated, knowing filing practices, the tax code and the best ways to get valuable data.

How it works

In tax identity theft, a taxpayer’s identifying information (such as Social Security number) is used to fraudulently obtain a refund or commit other crimes. Business tax identity theft occurs when a criminal uses the identifying information of a business to obtain tax benefits or to enable individual tax identity theft schemes.

For example, a thief could use an Employer Identification Number (EIN) to file a fraudulent business tax return and claim a refund. Or a fraudster may report income and withholding for fake employees on false W-2 forms. Then, he or she can file fraudulent individual tax returns for these “employees” to claim refunds.

The consequences can include significant dollar amounts, lost time sorting out the mess and damage to your reputation.

Red flags

There are some red flags that indicate possible tax identity theft. For example, your business’s identity may have been compromised if:

  • Your business doesn’t receive expected or routine mailings from the IRS,
  • You receive an IRS notice that doesn’t relate to anything your business submitted, that’s about fictitious employees or that’s related to a defunct, closed or dormant business after all account balances have been paid,
  • The IRS rejects an e-filed return or an extension-to-file request, saying it already has a return with that identification number — or the IRS accepts it as an amended return,
  • You receive an IRS letter stating that more than one tax return has been filed in your business’s name, or
  • You receive a notice from the IRS that you have a balance due when you haven’t yet filed a return.

Keep in mind, though, that some of these could be the result of a simple error, such as an inadvertent transposition of numbers. Nevertheless, you should contact the IRS immediately if you receive any notices or letters from the agency that you believe might indicate that someone has fraudulently used your Employer Identification Number.

Prevention tips

Businesses should take steps such as the following to protect their own information as well as that of their employees:

  • Provide training to accounting, human resources and other employees to educate them on the latest tax fraud schemes and how to spot phishing emails.
  • Use secure methods to send W-2 forms to employees.
  • Implement risk management strategies designed to flag suspicious communications.

Of course identity theft can go beyond tax identity theft, so be sure to have a comprehensive plan in place to protect the data of your business, your employees and your customers. If you’re concerned your business has become a victim, or you have questions about prevention, please contact us.

© 2018