Tax Planning: Year-End Items to Consider

Tax planning consists of ensuring that tax liability is appropriate (given the tax code, family finances, and family goals) and that required actions are completed by the deadlines. At year-end, we identify relevant actions and relevant timeline.

Current Year actions …

  1. Estimate total earnings and total tax withholdings along with any tax-deferral that has or will be made for the current year. Use these and your deductions to estimate Federal and State tax liability.
  2. Ensure that expected tax liability has been paid either through payroll or through estimated tax payments. It is always best to pay taxes through payroll.
  3. For the self-employed, estimating taxes and ensuring that enough but not too much tax is paid throughout the year is part of tax planning. This is particularly important for businesses that have no payroll and pay their income tax and self-employment tax (i.e. Medicare and Social Security) simultaneously. Without tax planning, it is common for these businesses to underpay their Federal tax liability.
  4. Again, estimating profit from business entities (S Corp, C Corp, LLC, or sole proprietorship) allows business owners to adjust cash flow and meet tax deadlines. Business owners often create or contribute to various tax-deferral plans. The largest pre-tax contributions are for plans that have to be created prior to year-end.
  5. Any deductible contributions to H.S.A., Traditional IRAs or other accounts need to be made by their specific deadlines. These contributions might lower taxable income today (Traditional IRA, pension and 401K) or be tax free in the future (Roth) or both tax free now and in the future (H.S.A.).
  6. Year-end provides an opportunity to harvest investment accounts and therefore reduce or increase capital gain. Capital gain can be countered against capital losses to provide a net gain or loss which will either increase or decrease tax liability for any given year. We can reduce tax liability by adjusting what we buy/sell (i.e. the lot) at year-end depending on the overall tax burden. Keep in mind that tax rates differ based on taxable income. The federal tax rate for gain can be from zero to 23.8%.
  7. Estimating overall tax liability prior to year-end allows families to adjust deductions and employers to make needed capital purchases before year-end.

Actions based on next year’s rules …

Since we don’t yet know the tax rules that will apply in 2018, it will be especially difficult to fulfill the second part the year-end tax planning (where we either act or defer actions this year based on comparing the tax code in both the current and coming years).
Based on the two tax proposals (House and Senate versions) we consider acting prior to year-end if there is a high probability that a tax advantage will be lost in the new year and it plays a significant role in the person’s finances.

Though neither proposal appears to “simplify” taxes, both bills make significant changes to current tax rules and may, in fact, make it ideal to take some actions before the end of 2017 (taking advantage of current rules), while delaying those that benefit from the rules in the new year.

It will now be the job of the legislative committee to reconcile the differences without inserting any new provisions which will then need to go to the House and Senate for final approval. It is still too early to take action according to one or the other proposal but exploring the impact in light of individual tax circumstances makes sense.

  1. It may be worth considering accelerating itemized deductions into 2017 that are targeted for elimination. For example State income tax is scheduled to disappear in both proposals. Nevertheless, consideration must be given to unique situations, particularly regarding AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax).
  2. Consider recognizing tax losses prior to year-end (which is a normal annual year-end tax action) but the ability to select tax lots may disappear in 2018. The new rules may require that sales “first-in-first-out” (FIFO) which results in higher tax liability as it recognize higher gains on the sale of a security. We are hoping FIFO will not survive the reconciliation process but if it does we’ll have to act quickly before Dec 31.
  3. If you are planning to transfer very large assets between family members you would be well advised to wait until 2018 when there is an increased tax exemption. This doesn’t change the annual gifting which is currently at $14K in 2017 (and will be $15K in 2018).

Though we all want to contribute our share of taxes to sustain our communities and our way of life, it is always prudent to annually evaluate and implement the best way to handle tax liability considering current and future implications.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS

www.aikapa.com

A business owner quandary: cash or accrual?

Financial statements are one of the most powerful and least utilized business tools. Small business owners need to master financial statements if they hope to work not just in their business, but on their business. And yet, I see all too often just how little time business owners spend exploring them. In my experience the bookkeeping burden doesn’t excite us into spending time on financials beyond tax preparation. In this discussion, basic features of cash and accrual financial accounting are presented with the goal of demystifying them and providing an opportunity for exploration.

One of the first decisions when starting a business is to determine the most appropriate accounting method for the business and for tax filings (the two most common are cash and accrual).

The cash method accounts for revenue when the money is received and for expenses when the money is paid out. It is useful for tracking monthly cash flow since it works just like a checkbook and the balance sheet appears like a checkbook register. Unfortunately, it can convey the wrong message regarding the long-term well-being of a company.

The accrual method of accounting provides a better picture of company profits during an accounting period by recording revenues when they are earned and expenses when incurred but it is not intuitive since the financials do not represent day-to-day accounts. Accrual accounting instead provides a view on long-term financial well-being.

So, what does the IRS require?

The IRS in 2001 relaxed prior requirements that forced many small businesses to use accrual accounting. To reduce the accounting burden on small businesses the current rules allow firms with under $5M in revenue to use cash basis accounting, unless they are an inventory based business.

For tax purposes, the accounting method is locked-in with the first business tax filing. After the initial year, a business uses the same accounting method unless it receives prior approval from the IRS.

It has been my experience that cash and accrual accounting are often misunderstood. It is important that small business owners address with their accountant, bookkeeper, and tax preparer how these two accounting methods will be implemented. The key is to be consistent in applying the rules.

What are some of the problems that may surprise you?

To cite an unusual example, a client sent you a check (on December 30, 2016) for interior decorating services you provided to her and you received the check on January 2, 2017.  Small businesses using cash accounting might be surprised that the IRS expects you to apply this check as income received in 2016. Strictly speaking, the rules require you to observe ‘constructive receipt’. Meaning, the money is available to you and under your control, whether or not you have taken actual possession of it. The fact that you haven’t deposited the check is strictly speaking a moot point as far as the IRS is concerned. Adhering to this ideal is a burden on small businesses. It’s our observation that accountants for small businesses operating on a cash basis consequently define constructive receipt as earnings and expenses in the register by December 31.

Constructive receipt argues against some commonly employed practices, such as delaying the deposit of income or the acceleration of expenses for the sole purpose of avoiding taxes. On the other hand, delaying invoicing does seem to be a more acceptable practice. It is generally more common for cash basis businesses to delay invoicing rather than delay cashing a check received so as not to run “afoul” of the constructive receipt rule.

To be clear, there is a large difference between the unintended receipt of a delayed payment (typically due to a tardy customer payment or a receivable that is in the mail) and deliberate manipulation. Here’s an example of a practice that is clearly not allowed. A small business owner is entitled to receive $20,000 on a contract completed in 2016. The owner contacts the client requesting that the payment not be made until January 2017. That’s not acceptable per published IRS rules.

On the other hand, IRS rules can sometimes be too onerous for a small business. For example, if you pay $2,000 in 2016 for an insurance policy effective for one year beginning July 1, you should deduct $1,000 in 2016 and $1,000 in 2017. It is my experience that this is seldom the practice for small business owners who without intending to avoid payment of tax, will register payment in the year paid without an evaluation of when the benefit will be derived.

Though few use the accrual method of accounting, its purpose is to match income and expenses in the same year. It is therefore critical to choose the year well – when there is any doubt on which year to choose, the decision is made on when ‘economic benefit’ was attained. This can be burdensome to small business owners since the assessment of ‘economic benefit’ is sometimes quite difficult to ascertain.

Under an accrual method, you generally include an amount in your gross income for the tax year in which all events that fix your right to receive the income have occurred and you can determine the amount with reasonable accuracy. As an example, you sold a computer on December 28, 2016 and billed the customer the first week of January 2017, but did not receive payment until February 2017. Using the accrual method, you must include the amount received for the computer with your 2016 income because ‘economic benefit’ was obtained when the computer was sold. Obviously, tracking and attribution requires a lot more work on the part of the small business owner using the accrual accounting method.

As part of learning to work on your business, not just in your business, it is important that you first develop confidence that your financial statements (Profit & Loss, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow statements) accurately represent your financial activity. It can take time to develop a reliable and consistent system. Once you have confidence in your financial statements you should address deriving more from them than just how to handle business tax liability.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS

www.aikapa.com