Category Archives: CPA Firm

Corrected Broker 1099s: ‘Tis Better to Extend than to Amend

Bridge_Wallpaper_by_tonvanalebeekWith the advent of IRS’ new 1099-B matching rules requiring brokerage firms to report “covered” and “non-covered” securities beginning in 2011, a new standard industry practice has developed:  corrected 1099s from brokers received long after the April 15th deadline has passed.

If you are an investor, you are now experiencing the headaches and hassles of dealing with these corrected forms.  One problem is that you have no way of knowing whether or not the 1099s you have in hand now will end up being the final ones for the year.

For this, and other important reasons, we recommend that our investor clients simply extend their returns each year, which allows another 6 months to receive and process the corrected forms.

By extending your tax returns, you’ll also solve a few other problems as well:  extensions are, by far, less costly to prepare than are amended tax returns.  Amended returns must be prepared by hand at both the federal and state level, and they require special attachments that are specifically labeled.  They are also “hand-processed” by IRS and require more people-power on their end as well.  Extensions can be e-filed with IRS, and most states accept IRS’ extension, so there’s no action required except to pay any tax due.

By filing an extension, you help to reduce the problem of “tax season compression” – especially bad this year due to the late start caused by Congress’ fiscal cliff debacle.  With less time to prepare returns, and data changing even as the returns are being processed, the risk of errors and omissions increases dramatically.  Even good CPA firms with great reputations may find themselves cutting corners in the quality control department in order to meet a client’s demand that the returns be completed by the deadline.

Another good reason to extend your tax returns is that sometimes taxpayers will receive an unexpected K-1.  This can happen if your broker decides to invest in publicly traded partnerships, or in private equity investments.  You’ll get a K-1 even if you only owned the units for a brief period of time during the year.  And,  receiving even a small inheritance from a distant relative can trigger a K-1 form from the estate that you don’t even know you are going to receive…until you receive it.

Since partnerships, estates and trusts can all file extensions, this delays the arrival of any related K-1s.  Estates of decedents are not required to select a calendar year end, so their filing deadlines can occur anytime throughout a year.

Some of our clients are reluctant to extend their returns because they have heard that this increases their risk of audit.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There is absolutely no relationship between returns selected for audits and whether or not an extension was filed.  What CAN trigger an audit, however, is the filing of an amended return.  Since those are looked at by human beings at the IRS, and not by computers, there’s more of a chance that something will catch the eye of the person processing the amended returns.

So, not only will you save tax preparation fees by extending your returns, you’ll be making a smart move to lower the risk of errors and omissions on the originally filed return, and you’ll be eliminating the need to file an amended return if corrected 1099s or surprise K-1s arrive after the April 15th deadline.

Congress Approves 11th-Hour Agreement to Avert Fiscal Cliff

doomsday-clockHere is a link to CCH’s synopsis of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.

Other tax resources are available on our website.

Happy New Year!

Accounting Software Set-Up: If It Was Easy, You Did It Wrong

Setting up accounting software and getting it working properly for your business or non-profit organization can earn you a badge of honor.  Or, it can be stumbling block for  bookkeepers, accountants, and CFO’s.

Who should perform the set up and conversion?  Should you run dual systems during the conversion?  Should you ditch your old chart of accounts and start over?  Are you dreading entering in your customer and vendor data bases? Did you budget enough time and money for the conversion?  Or maybe you don’t even know where to start.

I am offering these tips which are based on experience with all kinds and sizes of businesses and non-profit organizations.

Use a checklist

I can’t tell you how important it is to have a roadmap for an accounting system conversion.  Where can you get one?  You can start with the checklist provided by the accounting software manufacturer.  You can ask your CPA for one.  You can go on-line and find one.  Or, you can develop one yourself, a method that I think is best.  However, any checklist is better than no checklist.

Map out a timeline and budget

Do not plan a software conversion during your busy seasons.  Schedule it for the slow times.  Can you import your old data into your new software?  If not, and if you are going to lose your historical data (which these days you should be able to avoid), then you’ll probably need to do the conversion at year end, which may unfortunately also coincide with your busy times.  And, it will probably cost more in time and money than you have in your budget.

Build the bones of the system:  your chart of accounts

The most important detail to attend to is what to do about your chart of accounts.  It needs to be the right size and have the right level of detail.  But how do you know what this is?  A chart of accounts is meant to group your assets, liabilities, equity, income and expenses by broad, commonly accepted categories so that anyone looking at your trial balance can instantly understand the categories used and make meaningful comparisons to other entities.  For example, it is not common practice to have separate general ledger accounts for each employee’s cell phones.  Instead, common practice is to use a general ledger account called “Communications Expense” or “Telephone expense.”  Here is a good overview from Wikipedia.

While there can be an architecture to the chart of accounts, it needs to follow a logical pattern.  If you are going to use departments you need to decide whether you are grouping cost centers or revenue centers.  Revenue centers are true divisions of a company or NPO – both income and expenses are tracked by location, program, or function.  Cost centers involve only tracking costs of a department or function, and not the revenue.  Fund accounting can be even trickier:  if you are using sub-codes to track restricted funds, you can’t use these same codes to track spending by grants.  While a restricted grant may be a sub-set of temporarily restricted net assets, the inverse is not true.   It’s best to think through your architecture before implementation by drawing it out on a piece of paper.

Non-profit organizations have the most complex charts of accounts relative to their size because they are required to report to outside grantors, contributors and governments in ways not required by for profit entities.  Remember:  the more complex your chart of accounts, the longer it will take your bookkeeper to post even “simple” transactions, because each item of income and expense will need multiple sub-codes attached to it.

That is why it is sometimes it is simply not cost effective to try to build an elaborate and integrated chart of accounts that satisfies these requirements.  It can be easier and less time consuming to reserve grant reporting and fund tracking to an off the books solution such as Excel, especially for smaller organizations with limited resources.

Set up your data bases for customers and vendors

Hopefully, you’ll be able to import your customer and vendor data bases from your old software.  But, if not, you’ll need to input all of your vendors and customers names, addresses, and other information into the software, prior to using it.  These data bases form the platform for the accounts payable and accounts receivable subsidiary ledgers.  In some software programs, incorrectly identifying a customer as a vendor, and vice versa, can cause you to lose valuable historical information about that customer or vendor, so it is critical to get these data bases set up in advance, and not input them “on the fly” even though this will be tempting.  You’ll notice that I’ve said nothing about setting up employees.   This is because I rarely recommend that a company or NPO run its own payroll.  A service bureau should be employed to do that for you – it is more efficient, less expensive, and exposes you to far less risk of errors and penalties.  However, you will need to develop a posting journal/process, and you’ll also need controls over the payroll input and output from the service bureau. 

Ready, set, go

Once you’ve got your historical balances, beginning balances and budget information into the chart of accounts, you are ready to start using the system.  Many CPAs recommend using parallel systems for at least the 1st month, but I think that is optional.  As long as you have put in adequate controls and reconciliation processes, you should be able to have confidence in the new system right away.  These controls typically include:  month end bank reconciliations for all bank accounts, month end reconciliations to all subsidiary ledgers (accounts receivable, accounts payable and payroll, typically), daily or weekly management oversight of data entry, user passwords, and control over system access.  Setting up controls is not necessarily intuitive, so it’s usually a good idea to get your accounting firm involved in helping you with this portion of the transition.  Then, you’ll need to train your managers on the new controls and how to implement them.  And lastly, make sure your backup procedures have been tested and are working well – another very important control that is often overlooked.

Why the Portland/Multnomah County Business Tax Needs Reform

Mayor Sam Adams recently announced a tax amnesty for scofflaws who have so far succeeded in not rendering unto the City/County what they owe in business income taxes.  While I am not a big fan of amnesty programs, as they reward the wrong behavior and the wrong taxpayers, it is not surprising that businesses and property owners who have “nexus” within the City/County find themselves out of compliance with the tax code.  Some do so deliberately, while others may simply be blissfully unaware of their tax obligations.

This is because the City/County tax code, unlike its counterparts among other municipalities, taxes only certain businesses and individuals.  It relies on a very narrow tax base, and thus has an extremely high flat rate of 3.65%.  It is essentially a payroll tax on successful business owners, and an income/capital gains tax on successful property owners.

But more importantly, the tax punishes privately held companies who do business within City/County borders while rewarding public companies doing the same.  How can this be?  Well, here’s a real life example from my CPA practice:  Locally owned company with 3 shareholders, nets $4 million before owner salaries, and $1 million after owner salaries.  In my example, none of the shareholders actually live within the City/County boundaries.  What is their City of Portland/Multnomah County Business Tax?   The total tab will be $136,500.  If this same business were to be bought out by a publicly traded company, and management salaries were the same, the business would now have a tab of $36,500.  In this example, that’s a $100,000 punishment for the locally owned company.  Outrageous, no?

This strange phenomenon takes place because wages over $87,000 paid to more than 5% owners are “added back” to business net income to determine the tax.  Basically, you have a payroll tax on owners who pay themselves more than $87,000 per year, a tax that is not paid by companies who do not have more than 5% owners.

Further, the filing requirements imposed by the City are highly invasive (and perhaps illegal?).  Taxpayers who owe no tax whatsoever to the City/County are still required to provide copies of their individual tax returns, along with related Schedules C, D, and E, even though they have no income to report.  The TriMet tax, administered by the State of Oregon has no such requirements.  If you don’t owe the tax, you simply don’t file.

But, this is not so with the City/County.  I have clients who fear their personal financial details are now sitting on some City employee’s desk, and that information that is required by federal law to be kept in strict confidence is being exposed to those who have no need (or right?) to see such information.

But worst of all, the City/County tax is neither a fair tax nor a simple tax.  It relies on a narrow tax base (unfair) and it is one of the most complex and arcane municipal tax codes I have ever encountered.  A fairer and simpler tax would be a payroll tax/self-employment tax similar to the TriMet tax.  It could have a very low rate because of its broad tax base, and would be extremely simple to administer by simply tacking it on to the Oregon quarterly OQ filing. 

A broader tax base would also help to discourage local businesses from the practice of fleeing the City/County boundaries to escape the tax.  Regardless of what City leaders may say about this practice, every CPA I know has experience with clients who have relocated out of the City/County boundaries to avoid the tax.

In the meantime, if you own property or do business within the City/County borders and have not been filing your tax returns, now is the time to find out if the amnesty program can help you get into compliance.

Update June 20, 2012:  This just in from my tax law reporting service: 

“Oregon—Income Tax: Portland Confidentiality Provision Amended

Portland has amended its provision regarding confidentiality of business license tax taxpayers to provide that, in addition to existing prohibitions, it is unlawful for any Portland employee, agent, or elected official or any person who has acquired information to divulge, release, or make known in any manner identifying information about any taxpayer applying for tax amnesty, unless otherwise required by law. Ordinance No. 185312, City of Portland, effective May 9, 2012″

So, what is the penalty for unlawfully disclosing taxpayer information?  From the City Code: 

“7.02.730 Criminal Penalties for Violation of the Business License Law by City Employee or Agent.Printable Version
Anyone knowingly violating Section 7.02.230 may be punished, upon conviction thereof, by a fine not exceeding $500.00 or by imprisonment for a period not exceeding six (6) months, or by both fine and imprisonment.  Any City employee that is convicted will be dismissed from employment and is ineligible for holding any position of employment or office in the City for a period of five (5) years thereafter.  Any agent of the City that is convicted is ineligible for participation in any City contract for a period of five (5) years thereafter.”

Contrast this to the penalty on IRS employees for unlawful disclosure of federal tax information (which is the same information the City employees have about its licensees): 

“Penalties for Unauthorized Disclosure-Internal Revenue Code

Internal Revenue Code Sections 7213 and 7431 describe the penalties for unauthorized disclosure of federal information.

Under Section 7213 of the Internal Revenue Code, a governmental actor’s unauthorized disclosure is a felony that may be punishable by a $5,000 fine, five years imprisonment or both. Under Section 7213A of the Internal Revenue Code, the unauthorized inspection of federal tax information is punishable by a $1,000 fine, one year imprisonment or both. Section 7431 of the Internal Revenue Code permits a taxpayer to bring suit for civil damages in a U.S. District Court, including punitive damages in cases of willful disclosure or gross negligence, as well as the cost of the action.”

As you can see, City employees are subject to far less punishment than IRS employees who unlawfully disclose the exact same confidential information.

To Group or Not to Group: That is the Tax Question

IRS recently came out with new rules regarding how taxpayers must elect to group passive and active business and rental activities together.  Grouping a passive activity with an active one can help taxpayers avoid the dreaded “material participation rules” – designed to blur your eyes and make you sleepy and irritable.  Oddly, the passive activity rules upon which this new required grouping election is based were enacted back in 1987 with the infamous Tax Reform Act.  Um…that was 25 years ago. 

 Importantly, for tax years 2011 and forward, the new guidance from IRS makes it necessary for all business owners with more than one “activity” to consider whether and how to apply these rules to their undertakings.  Here is an overview of how the rules work:

  1.  You can group rental or other passive activities with trade or business activities where one is insubstantial to the other and if they constitute an “appropriate economic unit.”  This involves analyzing factors identified in Regulation 1.469-4:  similarities and differences among the business activities, extent of common ownership, geographic location, and interdependence.  (However, you cannot group rental real estate activities with personal property rental activities.)  Example:  a manufacturing S corporation produces waste metals that can be recycled or sold for scrap.  For business reasons, the corporation’s owners form a separate S corporation to handle the recycled material, either selling it or ensuring its proper disposal.  The recycling company’s revenues are miniscule compared to the manufacturing company, and it tends to generate losses.  The owners don’t spend much time managing the recycling company, but if they elect to group the two companies together, they can treat the recycling company as active, never again worrying about the passive activity rules.
  2. You can group a rental activity with a trade or business activity if the rental is to the business, and all the owners have the same ownership percentages in each entity.  Example:  an LLC owns a building, rented out to a printing company, also an LLC.  The owners of the printing company own the rental LLC in the same proportions as their ownership in the printing company.  Each individual owner can decide whether or not to group the two activities together, which results in converting LLC rental losses and income to active status, and avoids suspended rental losses where the owner’s incomes are too high to take advantage of the losses. 
  3. You can’t change or revoke your grouping election unless there is a material change in the underlying facts, or unless the original grouping was clearly erroneous.  You can, however, add to the group.
  4. If you don’t decide which activities to group for 2011 by attaching the required statement, IRS will take the position that nothing has been grouped (but you may carry on with prior groupings and are not required to disclose prior groupings to IRS.)  Grouping elections can be made in future years, but they cannot be retroactive.  Groupings made prior to 2011 will not be disturbed, so long as the taxpayer consistently maintains the grouping.
  5. You must disclose to IRS, by attaching the required statement from Rev. Proc. 2010-13 all:  new groupings for 2011; additions to prior groupings; changes to ANY groupings.  You do not have to disclose grouping elections made prior to 2011.
  6. Grouping elections can be made first at the entity level and then at the individual level, but an owner in an S corporation or partnership cannot un-group an activity that has already been grouped at the entity level.

Generally, there is no good reason to group rental activities together into one passive group.  Doing so would mean that passive activity losses would remain suspended until each property in the group is finally sold.

Unfortunately, there is neither a bright line test, nor a safe harbor, to help taxpayers determine which activities can be grouped.  So, it’s a good idea to carefully review the rules with your CPA firm to evaluate the best course of action.

My Hideous Tax Reform

(With apologies to economist and author Joel Slemrod, author of the paper, My Beautiful Tax Reform)

As an accountant, I get involved in the practical and tedious task of applying tax laws (and related loopholes) to our clients’ fact situations.  Rarely do accountants get the time to contemplate (or fantasize about) tax reform, nor to consider systems used effectively by other countries.  But, before tax season gets truly underway this year, I have been spending some time educating myself about these matters so that I can combine my practical knowledge with the wisdom of economists and policy analysts around the world.

Professor Slemrod has spent many years evaluating our tax system and expresses the view that a business Value Added Tax (VAT), combined with a highly progressive but simplified individual income tax would deliver the best combination of Fairness and Simplicity (my two objectives for tax reform), and would achieve what he calls “elegance”.  He proposes an individual income tax that would exempt most individuals from filing returns, basically by eliminating all deductions and credits, thus broadening the tax base, and then relying on wage withholding to create the proper and equally applied tax to all labor income.  The VAT tax would apply to ALL business income, and at a flat rate.  Shareholders of corporations would be able to get a credit from the portion of their income already taxed at the corporate level, with the goal being to eliminate all double taxes, and to eliminate all preferential treatment now available through special deductions, credits and business entity selection.

Our current system attempts to tax income (roughly defined as increases in consumption power) by dividing it into 3 pots:  labor income, business income, and income from the employment of capital.  However, there is little consistency in how these different categories actually work.  For example, if I am Mitt Romney and earn my income from “carried interest” I get to pay taxes at a flat capital gains rate of 15%.  If I am Warren Buffet’s secretary, I get to pay taxes at much higher rates, depending on my income and deductions, and I also have to pay social security taxes.  Publicly traded corporations are subject to a double tax whenever they pay dividends to their shareholders, whereas when they pay interest to their bondholders, they are not.  If I lose money on a capital transaction, I can’t deduct the loss unless I have made money on other capital transactions.  If I sell my home at a profit, I can exclude the gain up to $500,000 if I am (legally) married.  If I earn all my income from dividends and capital gains, I might not have to pay ANY taxes.  And, if I am a worker earning a good living, I may be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax and lose the deductions that my neighbor, who earns less, gets to deduct, thus vastly increasing my marginal tax rate.  These are just a few, selected examples of the way our tax system is both complex and unfair.

Fairness in taxation by definition would have to include progressivity as its underpinning.  In fact, Professor Slemrod rejects consumption taxes outright, as they can never be made progressive enough.  By taxing only consumption, such as through a national sales tax, those who would pay the highest effective rate of tax would be the poor and middle classes, who have to consume certain basic amounts in order to survive.  That would be highly unfair, but would admittedly be a simpler tax to administer than our current income tax.

One reason tax reform is so hideous is that anything that affects the federal system will also affect all the states who are connected to the federal system for purposes of defining and determining taxable income.  Any major reforms at the federal level will require these states to seriously evaluate and reform their own systems of taxation.  Another reason is that by trying to achieve simplicity, one may introduce unfairness, and vice versa.  For example, it might be fairer to measure and subtract inflation before taxing capital gains, but now you have introduced a highly complex calculation into the system.  You can eliminate this problem by using a consumption tax instead of an income tax, but as noted previously, a consumption tax is a regressive tax, and thus, unfair.

In order to restore legitimacy and moral authority to our government and its system of taxation, the current system MUST be reformed, and it must become fairer and simpler, yet still provide adequate funds.  Any steps in those directions are to the good, hideous or not.  President Obama’s recent budget proposals include some movements in the right direction:  indexing and making permanent AMT exemptions,  taxation of carried interest as ordinary income (too bad, Mitt), and simplification of the earned income credit.  However, when you read the summary of the President’s budget (spanning 215 pages) you start to feel pretty queasy.  More and more tax expenditures (credits and deductions) are being proposed in a desperate effort to insert more fairness into the system, but the end result is more, and much more, of the same highly complex and unfair system that we currently have.  Can we give up our favorite deductions and tax credits in exchange for lower and more progressive tax rates?   What might be beautiful is restoring the portion of total income taxes once borne by corporations in 1950 (30% of total revenues) from the shockingly low 7% today, something which could be achieved through a VAT tax.

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