IRS Resolution

8 Red Flags That Could Trigger an IRS Small Business Audit

My colleague, Brad Paladini, has granted me permission to post this article that was originally posted on his blog: 

Last year, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audited just over one million returns. That’s a lot less than the 1.74 million returns they audited in 2010, but it’s still no fun for the millions of taxpayers that had to go through the process!

Overall, the IRS audits only about 1 in 200 returns. But some returns attract much more scrutiny than others. The IRS doesn’t want to waste its time getting blood out of a stone, and so they focus their investigative efforts on those returns and taxpayers that are statistically more likely to have discrepancies, such as small business owners.

Common Red Flags

Here are some of the major ‘red flags’ that can increase the likelihood of attracting IRS attention in the form of a small business audit:

1)  Higher Personal Income

While the average taxpayer has a 1-in-200 chance of getting audited in any given year, those with incomes of over $1 million are looking at odds of 1-in-20. That is, if your income is greater than $1 million, the probability of your return being selected for audit is ten times greater than it is for the average taxpayer.

At the same time, if you have an income of less than $200,000, the chances of your return being audited falls to just 1 in 154, based on 2016 numbers. But if your income was above $200,000, your chances of being audited increase to 1.70 percent, or 1 in every 59 returns.

So, if you’re showing an unusually high personal income, you are more likely to face an IRS small business audit. If you own a flow-through entity, such as an S-Corporation or LLC, the audit is likely going to extend to your New Jersey business as well, and any other business interests you own.

The same is true of partnership income. If you are showing substantial income from a limited or general partnership, and the IRS flags you for an audit, the audit very well may extend to the partnership – especially if you are the managing general partner in a limited partnership and your K-1s are showing a lot of suspicious losses.

2)  Owning an All-Cash Business

Owners of businesses like restaurants, food trucks, convenience stores and other businesses that deal a lot in cash sometimes fall to the temptation to take cash transactions “off the books” in order to conceal income. Your credit card processor submits a 1099-K to the IRS detailing the credit card payments they’ve made to your business account. The IRS has a pretty good feel for how much of a business’s receipts are going to be in cash vs. credit cards, checks and other forms of payment. If your numbers are way out of whack for similar businesses in your industry, you can expect some additional IRS scrutiny.

3)  Suspiciously Low Salary Income for Corporation Owners

This is a common red flag for New Jersey business owners. Some business owners try to report as much income as possible as dividend income and little or no salary income in order to sidestep FICA taxes. The IRS is wise to this trick, and will often look closely at business owners who report W-2 salary as suspiciously low, compared to the size and profitability of their businesses.

Some people fill out their Schedule C (Business Profit and Loss) forms to show just enough income to qualify for an earned income tax credit or other lucrative tax credit, but not much more. This also attracts IRS scrutiny.

4)  Large Cash Transactions

Merchants must report cash transactions in excess of $10,000 to the IRS. Banks also report these transactions. Failure to report these transactions, or repeated transactions just below the threshold, could trigger IRS interest.

5)  Reporting Net Losses in Multiple Years

Reporting net losses in more than two years out of any given five-year period may attract a small business audit – especially for sole proprietorships, and any time business owners are trying to flow-through those losses to their personal income tax returns.

To qualify as a bona fide business, as opposed to a hobby, your enterprise needs to show a profit in at least three out of five years. The IRS presumes that if you can show a profit at least three out of five years, you are running a bona fide business set up to make a profit. Otherwise, the IRS will look closely at your claimed deductions, and you could run afoul of hobby loss rules, and get some deductions disallowed. See IRC 183 for more information.

6)  Net Operating Loss Carrybacks or Carry-Forwards

Business losses can be carried back or carried forward to apply against income in other years. But the IRS is interested in these transactions. Be sure to document any such carrybacks or carry-forwards carefully to withstand an IRS small business audit.

7)  Excessive Deductions for Vehicle Use

The IRS looks closely at 100 percent business deductions for car expenses.

First, you can deduct the IRS standard mileage rate for business use – 54.5 cents per mile for tax year 2018 (as of this writing, the 2019 mileage deduction has not been released yet.) Alternatively, you can deduct your actual vehicle operating expenses, including fuel, maintenance, repairs, and upkeep. You cannot deduct both. If you try, you may attract IRS scrutiny.

Secondly, be sure to carefully document the miles you drive and their purpose, and make sure the mileage you claim is genuinely deductible. For example, you can deduct expenses attributable to miles you drive to meet a client at a remote location, but you cannot deduct for mileage incurred driving from home to your office. That’s a personal commuting expense, not a business expense.

8)  Suspiciously High Rental Property Expenses or Rental Loss Claims

Rental losses are unusual and attract IRS attention. The IRS may look carefully at any deductions you make for depreciation, and at attempts to deduct improvement and renovation expenses entirely in the first year, rather than spreading these deductions out over a period of years under MACRS rules.

You can deduct repair expenses that are designed to restore the property to a functional condition in the year in which you incur them, but you cannot take a first-year deduction for improvements and renovations designed to enhance the value of the property. These you must deduct over a period of years, depending on the project.

Labor expenses on capital improvement projects must also be amortized over the life of the repair. Failure to adhere to these rules can trigger IRS scrutiny.

Facing an IRS Small Business Audit?

If you’ve received a notification for a pending small business audit from the IRS, the tax attorneys at Paladini Law are ready to work for you. Attorney Brad Paladini has spent his entire career helping individuals and businesses solve complicated tax problems. Brad is highly trained to negotiate and fight with the IRS on your behalf. Schedule a consultation to have your case reviewed and explore your legal options. Contact Paladini Law through our online form, or call (201) 381-4472 today.

Be Careful When Making Online Payments to the IRS

We usually recommend that taxpayers make their tax payments online to the IRS and states. Here are the benefits, but a few caveats to watch out for:

Benefits: When making payments online, your payments are generally credited on the day that you make the payment. Additionally, you can clearly apply your payments to a prior tax year, current tax year, or for estimated tax payments. This helps to minimize errors when the IRS receives your payments, such as applying them to the wrong tax year and the date the payment was made.

Beware of these issues: Recently, we discovered that it is imperative to use the primary taxpayer’s social security number when making payments online to the IRS, otherwise your payment may sit in limbo and not be applied to your account. Other tips include:

  1. Make sure that you specify the correct year that a payment should be applied to.
  2. Double-check your banking or credit card information to ensure that your payment actually gets processed.
  3. Save the confirmation that you paid your taxes as a pdf document or print it out

Overall, we have seen a much lower number of issues when clients make their payments online. Just make sure to adhere to the tips above.

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5 Financial Truths

There is a lot of information out there about finances, and it’s hard to figure out what is exactly true or not true. Always seek the truth, especially from someone that is not trying to sell you something. Here are some examples:

College: We are led to believe that all of our children must go to college to be successful and make a lot of money. While I am a big believer in education and college, it is not the only route and it is not for everybody. With the high cost of college, the decision to attend college should not be automatic. There are alternatives, such as becoming a tradesman, learning a special skill that does not require college, starting a business, sales positions, military or government positions that do not require college, stay at home parent (yes, this is a vocation), etc.

Retirement savings: Saving for retirement is a good thing, however, it should be balanced with both short and mid-range needs. For example, if you allocate virtually all of your savings towards retirement accounts and ignore having a cash cushion, then your risk of financial catastrophe increases. If a financial crisis arises or a large purchase needs to be made, then you will have to withdraw from your retirement accounts, which is one of the worst financial decisions to make due to both income taxes and penalties on the withdrawals. Furthermore, if you do not have withholdings taken from your distributions, then you will probably end up with a tax problem once you file your return. The prudent action is to have a cash cushion of 3 to 6 months of expenses for emergencies and to save for mid-range goals, such as a house purchase.

Debts: Debt truly is a double-edged sword. There are some who advocate staying away from debts at all costs and others who encourage you to leverage yourself to make more money. The truth is that debt should be used wisely and sparingly, if necessary and as a last resort, and it should not cripple you. If you are able to avoid debt, then that is excellent, as debts increase your risk and they also encourage risky behavior and increased spending in many cases.  To prove this point, why do you think McDonald’s started to accept credit cards, why do auto loans have 7 year terms, and why can young adults take out massive loans for college?  It is to get you to spend more than you would have otherwise.  As you mature financially you should seek to decrease your debts.

Most people would not be able to afford a house without obtaining a mortgage, and if they waited to purchase a house and rented instead, then they would most likely be worse off financially over the long term. Also, some businesses may need to incur debts to purchase expensive equipment, inventory, or improvements that would not be possible if they did not incur debts. To emphasize, it should be used wisely and sparingly.

Expenses, income and savings: Most likely your expenses are way too high. If you are able to save 15- 20% of your income and have no debts then spend whatever you want. Otherwise, set aside money towards savings to steadily increase the percentage that you save each time you get paid. This way you will spend whatever is left over. If you are not able to do this then you need to take a serious look at decreasing your expenses and increasing your income. The truth is that it is really not that hard, but most people have a hard time doing this. As Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”

Home and health = wealth: In the quest for success, don’t ignore your most valued relationships or your health. Nothing can cripple your finances as quickly as health or family issues, such as divorce. With either of these issues your expenses increase exponentially while your income suffers at the same time. Make sure to prioritize.

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A Few Tax Scams to Be Aware Of

The IRS posts a list of tax scams each year that you should be aware of:

Phishing: This is when fake emails are sent claiming to be from the IRS, however, the IRS never initiates contact with taxpayers via email about a bill or tax refund. You’ll see more of these during tax season.

Phone scams: I have even received some of these calls on my cell phone. Criminals, many times calling from overseas, will state that they are from the IRS and then threaten that you will be arrested, deported, etc. if you do not immediately pay a tax balance. By the way, the IRS will not do this, and they especially will not ask you to purchase gift cards from CVS or to wire them money to take care of your balance.

Identity theft: You usually find this out when your tax return gets rejected because it has been filed already. This is because your identity was stolen and criminals filed a return using your social security number to obtain a fraudulent refund. Always try to protect your personal data when you can to help to minimize this risk.

Fake charities: The IRS says that fake charities may even have similar names as national organizations. Make sure the charity is legitimate, and you can even check out the status of a charity at the IRS website. By the way, when I first started my practice years ago, I came across someone who started a fake charity and solicited donations to help people after 9-11. Supposedly, they used the money to pay for expensive vacations instead. Know your charities.

Abusive tax shelters: These are schemes that are promoted to avoid paying taxes that are illegal. If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably isn’t true.

Other scams include: return preparer fraud, inflated refund claims, excessive claims for business credits, falsely padding deductions, falsifying income to claim credits, frivolous tax arguments, and offshore tax avoidance.

Most of these scams can be avoided just by using a competent and trusted tax preparer.

 

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IRS and NJ Taxation Highlights

 

Yesterday I attended a continuing professional education seminar with speakers from both the IRS and the State of New Jersey. Here are some highlights after all of the recent Federal changes and also many New Jersey changes that most people are not aware of:

Your paycheck may be under withheld: After the new Federal tax law changes, many people have seen an increase in their take home pay due to the tax cuts, but it is quite possible that too little has been withheld. If you want to be safe then ask your employer to increase your withholdings, and you can also use the withholding calculator at irs.gov. Beware that it is really meant for simpler tax situations versus being self-employed, having rental income, and investments. If you are one of our business clients that we already prepare a year-end tax projection for, then we will take care of this for you.

Private debt collectors: The IRS uses private debt collectors, and the State of New Jersey has already been doing this for years through Pioneer Credit Recovery. This can cause concern especially with all of the fraud that is taking place nowadays. By the way, the IRS will not ask you to drop off cash somewhere, send a money order, or purchase gift cards to settle your debts.

New Jersey tax amnesty: There are many unknowns to all of the changes that NJ has made, including the start date of a tax amnesty program. The program will likely start on November 15th of this year and end on January 15, 2019, and allows a reduction of interest charged and elimination of penalties for old tax debts from February 1,  2009 through September 1, 2017. You should receive a notification on this program if you have old debts, but you can file and pay your old debts even if you do not receive a notice from the State.

New Jersey property tax deduction increase : The property tax deduction on your New Jersey tax return has been raised to $15,000 from $10,000.

Penalties for not having health insurance in New Jersey: New Jersey now requires residents to have health insurance or they have to pay a tax penalty. New Jersey has taken the opposite approach of the Federal government.

Increased pension exclusions in New Jersey: This will be phased in over the next several years, however, there is an income limitation of $100,000, which has not increased.

There are many, many more changes related to New Jersey, including reinstatement of Urban Enterprise Zones, increased tax rates on income over $5,000,000, taxes on ride sharing, taxes on liquid nicotine, and changes to payments plans.

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How to Resolve Conflicts with Less Stress

Conflicts are inevitable and happen in all aspects of your life, including disputes with your customers, disputes as a customer, with family, neighbors, and in any situation. However, there are ways of minimizing conflicts and to also resolve them fairly and quickly. Here’s how:

Resolve at the lowest level: A perfect example is when a customer at the grocery store is not satisfied for some reason and they immediately ask to speak to the store manager. Quite often, the easiest way to have resolved the issue would be to let the cashier know the issue first, then customer service if still not resolved, then finally with the store manager.

Don’t make threats or take drastic action: As soon as you say that you are going to contact your attorney, then you just escalated your issue to a whole level higher, and the relationship will most likely be damaged forever. Ironically, I think that this threat has been overused anyway and nobody really cares all that much. Another example is to demand a raise from your employer and if not given one, then threaten that you will leave. Why not either ask for a raise, if you deserve it, or ask your boss what you can do differently to receive a raise?

Avoiding conflicts: Avoiding conflicts does not mean trying to make everyone happy because that is not possible, and you will make yourself unhappy and exhausted in the process. Do not avoid conflicts just to avoid conflicts or just to be nice as sometimes the truth hurts, although you should make sure that you say it in a charitable way. A good practice is to always strive to determine how to conflict proof your decisions.  For example, if you know that you are going to make a change to your business practices, then let people know ahead of time, when possible. This can involve alerting customers to price increases, billing methods, payment methods, and timing of providing a service. The key is to communicate with people in a smart, proactive, truthful, and thoughtful way.

Put it in perspective: Is the conflict really that important or even worth pursuing? Weigh the pros, cons, and the actual cost of entering a battle.

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Don’t Be Embarrassed if You Have Financial or Tax Problems

There is a stigma attached to having financial and tax problems, but it doesn’t have to be that way or it may make the problems worse. Sometimes these problems develop as you become more successful, which easily happens with both celebrities and business owners. Other times they develop due to a quick downturn in business, withdrawing money from retirement accounts early, losing your job, health issues, or any other negative event. Even some very successful people have had financial struggles and then bounced back, including:

Donald Trump: Although he never filed bankruptcy personally, his casinos and hotels have. He is now president of the United States.

Mark Victor Hansen: One of the co-creators of the “Chick Soup for the Soul” book series.

Walt Disney: He had financial struggles early on.

Jim Rohn: Entreprenuer, author and motivational speaker who went broke after a business expansion went bad. He is credited with the business success of many and some of his talks can be listened to on YouTube.

Also, the number of celebrities that have financial and tax issues is too long to list . . .

What should you do if you find yourself in trouble or better yet, how can you avoid problems? Here are a few ways:

Hire competent professionals and heed their advice: As your success increases, you need to work closely with advisors that can guide you in the right direction to minimize risks, strengthen your finances, and reduce your tax burdens. If you view and treat professionals as purely costs, then you will not only hire the wrong ones, but you will not seek their advice, which is usually worth more than their cost.

Too much leverage, not enough cash: There are those that are 100% against any types of debts, and I can definitely see how this can be a smart strategy to keep you out of trouble. However, there are many times that you will never realize an opportunity if you do not take upon some debts and risks in a wise manner. Having a reasonable cash cushion will also help to thwart many smaller financial setbacks.

Know the tax consequences: Virtually every financial transaction has a tax consequence and it is prudent to seek professional advice to minimize negative consequences. Having a good year in business, followed by a not so good year can easily cause a tax issue if taxes were not properly planned and paid for. Another tax catastrophe is withdrawing from your retirement accounts and not accounting for income taxes and early withdrawal penalties.

Don’t be so hard on yourself or delay seeking the advice of a professional or your problems will just get worse.

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Do You Have Too Many Financial Accounts?

How many financial accounts should you have both personally and for your business? These days it is so easy to open up accounts, but if there is no strategy for having a lot of accounts, then it can create unnecessary chaos and even increase your accounting and tax preparation costs. Let’s look at the pros and cons:

Multiple investment accounts: You may have a traditional brokerage account with one firm, your IRA’s somewhere else, and your old 401k’s still at your employer. The problem with this approach is that it may be hard to coordinate your asset allocation and investment strategies if you are not looking at them as a whole. This is especially true if you have a financial advisor because he or she most likely does not have visibility to your other accounts and cannot advise you properly.

Multiple bank and credit card accounts for your business: There are strategies that can be implemented whereas you transfer money between bank accounts as sort of a shelter as a way of budgeting for your expenses. This strategy is outlined in a book called “Profit First,” which is a very good read, and if you are able to implement this strategy then that is excellent. Aside from the business owners that use this strategy, anecdotally, there seems to be a very high correlation between poor financial performance and multiple bank and credit card accounts.

Multiple bank and credit card accounts personally: The most common issue is when husbands and wives have separate bank accounts. Aside from this being a smart move if there are legal issues, addictions, or tax issues, it makes sense to have one joint checking account for a married couple. Money issues are at the forefront of arguments so why not coordinate your finances as one unit so that you make better decisions jointly and without conflict?

You should always strive to simplify your finances, but as Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Did Your Tax Balance Catch You by Surprise?

What should you do if you file your tax return and then realize that you now have a large liability that can’t pay? First, don’t panic as there are several options for you:

Installment Agreement: An installment agreement can be a good option for you, which can sometimes be requested when you file your tax return. Interest and penalties will still accrue, but now you do not have to worry about levies. You may also request an extension of time to pay for several months if you expect to be able to pay off your balance quickly.

Offer in Compromise: Pennies on the dollar! We’ve all heard this advertisement from tax resolution companies. There is some truth to this, but it is greatly overstated. The way it works is that the IRS will accept an amount that is less than the amount of your tax liability. However, a majority of the offers are not accepted by the IRS.

Currently Not Collectible: This option allows you to postpone making any payments towards your tax balance and essentially places all collection activities on hold. However, the IRS may reassess your situation in the future to determine your ability to pay. Penalties and interest will still accrue.

No matter which payment arrangement you make, the caveat is that going forward you must always file your returns timely and full pay your balances. If not, then any arrangement that you have in place can default. Additionally, you generally need to submit financial information to the IRS for them to determine eligibility of an arrangement.

Prevention: How can this be prevented going forward? The first way is to make sure that you are properly planning how to minimize your tax liabilities before the year is over with proactive tax planning. The second way is to project your tax liabilities during the fall to estimate what your tax liability will be, which will make you aware of how much you will owe and give more time to figure out a good solution.

Is it Better if I File Separately from My Spouse and Other Common Tax Questions Answered

We receive a lot of questions pertaining to tax and financial matters. Here is a sample of commonly asked questions:

Q: Is it better if I file separately from my spouse?

A: Usually the answer is no, and the only way to know for certain is to perform an analysis when preparing the tax return to split income and deductions between spouses to see if there is a benefit. However, you may want to file separately from your spouse if there are tax or legal issues.

Q: Is social security taxable?

A: That depends. If you are only receiving social security and do not have other income, then the answer will probably be no. A quick way of checking is to add one half of your social security plus your other income to see if it is greater than your base amount, which varies based upon your filing status (currently it is $32,000 for married filers).

Q: Does my son or daughter need to file a tax return?

A: Generally, if your dependent child has more than $6,300 of earned income or $1,050 of unearned income, such as from dividends, then they need to file a return.

Q: If I file an extension, will it extend the amount of time that I have to pay my taxes.

A: No, the extension only grants you additional time to file your return and all payments must be made by the original due date, otherwise additional interest and penalties may be incurred.

Q: Can the IRS levy my IRA?

A: Yes, the IRS has the power to levy almost all of your income and assets, with few exceptions, such as workers’ compensation.

Q: Are legal fees for a divorce deductible?

A: Many of the legal fees for a divorce are not tax-deductible, except for the portion relating to taxable income.