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Bonus Depreciation Tax Breaks Make 2011 a Year to Buy

If you are thinking of buying new vehicles, equipment, machinery, phones, computers or other technology for your business, 2011 could be the year to do it.  That’s because not one, but two laws passed late last year have greatly increased the amount of your immediate tax write-off for making such purchases.

The so-called Section 179 deduction limit, slated to revert to $25,000, was increased to $500,000, and the total amount of equipment that can be purchased was increased to $2 million (up from $200,000). This includes most new and used capital equipment, and also includes software.  In addition, bonus depreciation was increased to 100 percent on qualified assets (new equipment only). When applying these provisions, Section 179 is generally taken first, followed by bonus depreciation. 

Bonus depreciation, a special depreciation allowance, is a limited-time tax benefit for business purchases of qualified items during 2011, or in some cases 2012 as well.  Basically, bonus depreciation offers a giant tax incentive for businesses to buy new property and other assets now by allowing you to write off (or “expense” in accounting lingo) the entire purchase (100 percent) immediately rather than having to take those write-offs in little pieces over many years (called depreciation). Normally, businesses recover these types of capital investments through annual deductions spread over as many as 20 years. 

Now 100%:  This provision of the Tax Relief Act passed late last year doubles the amount of bonus depreciation allowed – from half of the purchase cost, to the full amount (100 percent) for this year. That’s up from 30 percent a few years ago. In other words, if you buy some PCs, servers, phone equipment, machinery, or all kinds of other qualifying items, you can take the entire amount as a deduction on your 2011 tax return.   

The temporary rule change also makes 50 percent bonus depreciation available for qualified property placed in service during 2012. Some long-lived property and transportation property is eligible for 100 percent expensing if placed in service by the end of 2012. What’s more, there is no cap on the amount you can spend and deduct, and the benefit applies to businesses of any size.

Where Section 179 Fits:  Other benefits available only to small businesses fall under different provisions known as the Section 179 rules.   The maximum amount of property that small businesses could deduct immediately under Section 179 was scheduled to revert to its old limit of $25,000, but that’s now been raised to $500,000. This includes vehicles, machinery, furniture and other equipment.  A detailed list of qualifying types of property is available at IRS.gov.

To qualify for the Section 179 deduction, your property must have been acquired for use in your trade or business. Property you acquire only to produce income, such as investment property, rental property (if renting property is not your trade or business), and property that produces royalties, does not qualify.

When you use property for both business and non-business purposes, you can take the Section 179 deduction if you use the property more than 50 percent for business.  If you use it more than 50 percent for business, multiply the cost of the property by the percentage of business use. Use the resulting business cost to figure your Section 179 deduction.

When to Forego the Bonus: The IRS also ruled recently that you can forego bonus depreciation if you want to.  That’s something you might want to consider if your business has an expiring net operating loss, an expiring capital loss carryover, or you believe that much higher tax rates in the future will make deductions more valuable in later years.

The website Section179.org is a helpful resource for figuring out Section 179 deductions, and covers the details in plain language, including what property qualifies and the many ways that the deduction can impact your bottom line. The site also has IRS tax forms, and tools for you to use, including a free Section 179 deduction calculator.

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New SBA Study says IRS Small Biz Audit Crackdown is Bogus

Ten years ago, a landmark IRS report claimed that small business owners under-report income by $80-100 billion yearly and account for over half of the U.S. “tax gap” of owed by uncollected taxes.   As a result, small business owners have been subjected to increased audits and reporting requirements, including the controversial new 1099 rule.

But now for the truth:  A new study just released by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Advocacy says the IRS crackdown on the backs of small biz has been bogus all along.  And that comes from independent research commissioned by the Feds themselves – not some anti-tax business group.

After reviewing 10-years’ worth of IRS small business audits related to the innocuously-named “National Research Program” (NRP), outside researchers found that a mere 1% of all issues examined resulted from intentional failures to report income properly. Yes you read that right – one percent. In other words, 99% of income underreporting is unintentional, and undoubtedly the result of a vast and utterly confusing array of tax rules and regulations.

And here’s the real gut punch for biz owners:  While small business was tagged as the tax cheating culprit, the new study says that large corporation tax gaps are scarcely being measured at all, and that the IRS has been using estimates dating back to the 1970s and 80s to calculate corporate noncompliance.  What’s more, says the new report released by SBA:  “The IRS focused its tax-gap study on individual tax returns, and on returns not subject to withholding or third party reporting, which skewed the study unfairly toward small business.”

Over the last five years, audits of returns typically filed by biz owners have soared, while those for corporations with $10 million or more in assets have actually dropped 13%.  These are figures reported by the SBA itself.

But which type of audit pays off the most for taxpayers – small biz or big corporation?  No contest.  According to the new whistle blowing report, the IRS collects an average of $9,350 per auditor hour spend examining big biz returns, but only $1,034 per auditor hour spend auditing small business.

The new study concludes with this:  Unlike large corporations, small businesses lack the resources and expertise to negotiate with the IRS.  Indeed, 71% represent themselves in audits. They are overwhelmed by the complexity of the tax code.  Only aggressive outreach and education designed to help small businesses understand their tax filing obligations will significantly reduce the tax gap attributed to them.

BizBest will email the full 54-page report in PDF, free of charge, to anyone interested. Email your request to editor@bizbest.com, and be sure to include the email address you’d like the report sent to.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

Business Owner Guide to Top Legal and Tax Trends

Starting and operating a small business is never easy, and all of the tax and rule-making authorities that get in your way don’t help. Legal and regulatory issues, trends and requirements are always changing, forcing business owners to run a new gauntlet each year.  To keep you on top of things, here are 11 trends and changes you need to know:

1. Rising unemployment insurance (UI) rates: UI funds in many states are at critically low levels. As a result, biz owners in many areas can expect to see UI contribution rates higher in 2011 to replenish depleted UI trust funds and repay federal loans taken to allow states to continue to pay benefits.

2. Changing tax laws: In 2011, business owners even greater complexity (if that’s possible), including a partial payroll tax holiday, the ability for businesses to expense 100 percent of their capital investments, and the retroactive extension of some temporary incentives that expired in 2010.

3. Health care reform: A new rule provides business tax credits for small companies that offer health insurance to employees. Grandfathering will remain an important component of health care reform. Health plans that existed on March 23, 2010 are grandfathered, meaning that they do not need to add many of the new protections under the health care reform law. To remain grandfathered, health plans cannot make any significant changes to the plan.

4. Flexible spending account (FSA) changes: Effective this year, over-the-counter medicines and drugs other than insulin (i.e., aspirin) are longer eligible for reimbursement from a health FSA unless the item is prescribed by a medical practitioner.

5. Employment law trend: The U.S. Department of Labor and many states have enacted or are considering measures to provide greater transparency to workers on the wages they are owed, especially in key areas such as minimum wage and overtime requirements, and to increase penalties on those who fail to pay their workers the compensation they are entitled.  Expect to see new rules enacted.

6. 401(k) disclosures: If your business offers a 401(k) plan, new regulations will require disclosures of fees being charged by the plan. In addition, plans offering “target date” funds will likely see further disclosure requirements around those investments.

7. States go revenue hunting: Many states are facing critical budget shortfalls, and are contemplating new tax and fee increases or filing changes to raise money. Also be aware that many state agencies are reducing staff, which could result in processing delays for businesses requiring licensing or other state services. Be sure to renew or apply for business licenses early.

8. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requirements:  With the dramatic increase in the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogs, the FTC has issued regulatory guidance around the use of advertising in social media, especially endorsements and misleading or dishonest product reviews. The agency has also recently proposed the creation of a “Do Not Track” tool for the Internet (similar to the telemarketing “Do Not Call” registry).

9. IRS enforcement: To help collect more tax revenue, the IRS is ramping up its enforcement efforts in several areas affecting small business. In 2010, the IRS kicked off an employment-tax audit program that will carry into this year and beyond. These audits are focusing on employee misclassification, executive compensation, fringe benefits, and adherence to general employment tax filing requirements.  The IRS is also accelerating efforts to increase tax compliance among employees who collect tips.

10. Privacy protection: Most states now require businesses to notify customers (and sometimes government authorities) when sensitive data is breached. Some have new laws requiring that businesses protect sensitive client data. Businesses handling protected health information are subject to additional requirements.

11. Employment verification:  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to crack down on companies knowingly hiring undocumented aliens. Several different Congressional immigration reform proposals, which may present further employment verification obligations, are being considered.

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What You Must Know about Hiring Independent Contractors

If your business uses independent contractors, the best tax advice is simple: Watch your back! Why?  Because state governments are lining up to help the IRS nab businesses they believe have misclassified workers as independent contractors instead of employees.

In tax terms, the difference is huge. If the IRS says you did it wrong, the taxes and penalties will do some serious damage.  And states now want their pound of flesh as well.  Pennsylvania, for example, just enacted a law that can impose civil and even criminal penalties on businesses that misclassify workers. Other states with similar laws include CO, CT, DE, IL, MD, MA, NE, NJ, NM, NY and WI.  Others won’t be far behind.

And be aware that the IRS uses leads and other information it gets from all states to identify and audit small businesses it feels are misclassifying workers.  In short, small business is a big target, and thousands of audits are underway already, with thousands more to come.

Using independent contractors or “contract workers” properly has long been one of the stickiest issues that small business owners face.  Are the people you bring in to provide specific services “independent contractors” (non-employees)? Or are they actually employees?

Because independent contractors are responsible for paying their own taxes, using them can save your business a bundle in payroll taxes, insurance, benefit costs, training and other areas. Independent contractors work for themselves. They operate their own business and have you as a client. You are not their employer and don’t set their hours or control how they perform their work.

But the IRS sees it this way: A worker is an employee of your business unless you can prove otherwise.  “Determining whether a new worker is an employee or an independent contractor can be tough,” says Keith Hall, National Tax Advisor for the National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE).  “Keep in mind that you can’t just choose which one is easiest.  It really depends on who calls the shots day to day.”

If you’re unsure how to classify a worker, here’s quick advice from NASE:

  • If you control the Who, Where, When and How the work is done, they are probably an employee. This means that you, as the business owner, must file a Form W-2 and withhold income and payroll tax, among other things.
  • If the worker controls their own work product and even has other customers besides you, then they are most likely independent contractors.  Payments to independent contractors are reported on IRS Form 1099, and the independent contractors are responsible for their taxes and their own tax forms, including Schedule C, Profit or Loss from Business and Schedule SE, Self Employment Tax.

And also know that workers who believe they’ve been improperly classified as independent contractors can file an Uncollected Social Security and Medicare Tax on Wages form asking the IRS to calculate and collect the employer portion of those two items that would have been due from you.

Here are 12 other things you should do and know:

  1. Using an independent contractor agreement can help (a little): A simple agreement that specifies the independent contractor relationship can help validate your position, but it won’t be enough by itself. Sample independent contractor agreements that you can use or adapt for your own business are available online at Business Owner’s Toolkit and DocStoc.com.
  2. Know the rules for your specific business or industry: Some industries or types of businesses have established a tradition of using independent contractors rather than employees and have cleared this with taxing authorities. But at the same time, firms in certain lines of business are at high risk for aggressive worker “reclassification” audits – especially construction and landscaping.  IRS Publication 15-A, The Employer’s Supplemental Tax Guide (PDF) has detailed guidance including information for specific industries.
  3. The Independent Contractor Report, which has been tracking legal issues in this area since 1986, has detailed information on industries most at risk.   
  4. Know what the IRS says: This is an area where’s it’s important for business to look at what the IRS is saying about the business relationship between you and the person performing the services. The links below have what you need.
  5. Contractors control when and where they work. While they might receive job specifications from a client, they are not given specific instruction on how to accomplish a task.
  6. Avoid setting a pattern of daily or weekly work hours dictated by your business.
  7. Contractors do not usually have a permanent or continuing relationship with your business and have time to pursue other clients. Compensate contractors on a per-job basis, rather than weekly or monthly.
  8. Contractors are paid to complete a set task and may bring in others to complete it, at their discretion and on their payroll.
  9. Contractors use their own tools and technology and are responsible for their incremental expenses. They have an investment in their own “business” and should be able to perform their duties without your facilities.
  10. Contractors can’t be fired as long as they produce results that meet their contract specifications.
  11. Contractors are not covered under health insurance or other benefits you have for employees.  They should have their own.
  12. Legal self-help publisher Nolo has a great guidebook that shows you how to: create a valid contract, assess who qualifies as an independent contractor, hire ICs without risking an audit, retain ownership of intellectual property when using ICs and take advantage of the IRS “Safe Harbor” law.  Details at Nolo.

These IRS resources will also help:

Tax Law Changes You Should Know

The politicos have done their thing again, stitching together a patchwork of small business tax changes that aim to nudge business owners toward spending and hiring. This one’s called the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 (SBJA) and it’s a wide-ranging mash-up of tax incentives and other changes you need to know about.  Here’s a rundown some key changes in the new law:

  • Extends bonus depreciation
  • Extends and doubles Section 179 expensing
  • Provides 100 percent gain exclusion for qualified small business stock
  • Allows five-year carry-backs of the general business credit for qualified taxpayers
  • Enhances the deduction for start-up expenses
  • Allows a self-employment deduction for 2010 health care expenses
  • Increases failure-to-file penalties on information returns
  • Establishes a new information reporting rule for rental property expense payments

Bonus Depreciation Returns

A highly-popular provision allowing first-year, 50 percent “bonus depreciation” that expired in 2009 is back.  The SBJA reinstates bonus depreciation for most property through 2010, and for certain longer-lived property and specific types of transportation property through 2011. Eligible property generally includes new depreciable property with a recovery period of 20 years or less; computer software, and; qualified leasehold improvements. The new law also extends the $8,000 increase in luxury auto depreciation limits on property eligible for bonus depreciation.

With only weeks left in the year, tax experts at the accounting firm CBIZ question how much additional investment this provision will create.  But for business owners who’ve already made eligible investments during 2010, it’s a windfall.

Expensing Election Extended

Under prior law, the Section 179 expensing election allowed businesses to immediately expense (write off) up to $250,000 of tangible personal property placed into service in the 2010 tax year. The deduction would begin to phase out when eligible purchases exceed $800,000. SBJA enhances this deduction in several ways for assets placed in service in tax years beginning in 2010 and 2011:

  • The maximum amount subject to the election is increased from $250,000 to $500,000;
  • The phase-out starting point is increased from $800,000 to $2 million, and;
  • Businesses may elect to expense up to $250,000 of qualified leasehold improvement property, restaurant property, and retail improvement property.

According to CBIZ, this provision marks the first time that the expensing election has been extended to any type of real property.

Gain on Sale of Small Business Stock:

Historically, 50 percent of the gain from the sale of qualified small business stock held at least five years could be excluded from income, but remained subject to the alternative minimum tax. The remaining 50 percent of such a gain was taxed at 28 percent. The exclusion percentage increased from 50 percent to 75 percent for qualified small business stock acquired after February 17, 2009 and before 2011.

SBJA increases the exclusion from 75 percent to 100 percent for qualified small business stock acquired after the enactment date and before 2011. In addition, there is no alternative minimum tax imposed on any gains eligible for the 100 percent exclusion.

While the 100 percent exclusion is a significant tax benefit, taxpayers must act quickly because they only have until the end of the year to acquire the qualifying stock.

Startup Expense Deduction Increased

Generally, taxpayers may deduct only $5,000 of startup costs, subject to a phase-out threshold of $50,000, and the remainder must be amortized over 15 years. The new law increases the maximum deduction to $10,000 and the phase-out threshold to $60,000. But this provision only applies to startup costs incurred in 2010.

Self-employment Tax Break on Health Insurance

Under prior law, individuals subject to self-employment tax could not deduct health insurance for purposes of computing net earnings subject to self-employment tax. But for the 2010 tax year only, taxpayers will be allowed to reduce their net self-employment income by the cost of their health insurance.

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