Are You Ignoring the Household Employee Payroll Rules?

If you hire a domestic worker to provide services in or around your home, you probably have a tax liability that you don’t know about – or one that you do know about but are ignoring. Either situation can come back to bite you. When the worker is your employee, your liability includes both withholding and paying payroll taxes as well as issuing a W-2 after the close of the year.

Sure, it is a lot easier simply to pay your worker in cash so as to avoid federal and state payroll taxes – and all the paperwork that goes with them. Your domestic worker will likely be fully cooperative with a cash deal because he or she can also avoid paying taxes. However, if the IRS or your state employment department finds out about these payments, the result could be very unpleasant for you.

Not everyone who performs services in or around your home is classified as an employee. For instance, a plumber or electrician who makes repairs in your home will generally be a licensed contractor; the government does not classify contractors as employees.

On the other hand, the IRS has conclusively ruled that nannies, housekeepers, senior caregivers, some gardeners and various other domestic workers are employees of the people for whom they work. It makes no difference if you have a written contract with the employee; similarly, the number of hours worked and the amount paid do not matter.

You are probably thinking, “Wait a minute” – perhaps everyone you know pays in cash, and none of them has paid payroll taxes or issued a W-2 for a household employee. However, if a worker gets injured on your property or if you dismiss the worker under less-than-amicable circumstances, it’s a pretty sure bet that your household employee will be the first one to throw you under the bus by reporting you to the state labor board or by filing for unemployment compensation.

Even some big-name people have been caught up in this issue. Just recently (as seems to happen every four years), a presidential nominee, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), was revealed to have failed to pay more than $15,000 in taxes on behalf of the nanny for his newborn triplets. He subsequently paid the back taxes and was confirmed as Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Some individuals try to circumvent the payroll issue by treating a household employee as an independent contractor, incorrectly issuing the household employee a Form 1099-MISC.

Here are the correct actions you should take for domestic employees:

  • Obtain a Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN), which you will use in lieu of your Social Security Number when filing the required reporting forms. Note: If, as the owner of a sole proprietorship business, you already have a FEIN, you should use that number instead of requesting a separate one as a household employer.
  • Obtain a state ID number for unemployment insurance and state tax withholdings.
  • Withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes from the employee’s pay if it exceeds the annual threshold ($2,000 for 2017).
  • Withhold income tax from the employee if the worker requests and if you agree to do so.
  • File state employment tax returns as required – generally quarterly (although beware that some states require monthly returns) – and make the required deposits for state employment taxes.
  • Prepare a W-2 for the employee and a W-3 transmittal; file them by the end of January.
  • File Schedule H with your federal individual income tax return, and pay all the federal payroll and withholding taxes (i.e., the federal taxes that you withheld from the employee’s pay, plus your matching share of Social Security, Medicare and federal unemployment taxes). Limited exception: If you operate a sole proprietorship with employees, you may include the payroll taxes of your household workers with those of the business’s employees, but you cannot take a business deduction for those taxes. Generally, it is better to keep the personal and business reporting separate.

Some additional issues to consider are as follows:

Overtime – Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, domestic employees are nonexempt workers and are entitled to overtime pay after working 40 hours in a week. Live-in employees are an exception to this rule in most states.

Hourly Pay or Salary – It is illegal to treat nonexempt employees as if they are salaried.

Separate Payrolls – If you own a business with a payroll, you may be tempted to include your household employees on the company’s payroll. The payments to the household employees are personal expenses, however, and are not allowable deductions for a business. Thus, you must maintain a separate payroll for household employees; in other words, you must use personal funds to pay household workers and instead of paying them from a business account.

Eligibility to Work in the U.S. – It is illegal to knowingly hire or continue to employ an alien who is not legally eligible to work in the U.S. When hiring a household employee who works on a regular basis, you and the employee each must complete Form I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification). You will need to examine the documents that the employee presents to establish the employee’s identity and employment eligibility.

Other Issues – Special situations not covered in this overview include how to handle workers hired through an agency, how to gross up wages if you choose to pay an employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, and how to treat noncash wages.

Please call this office if you would like assistance with your household employee tax and reporting requirements or with any special issues that apply to your state.

The IRS Has Become More Liberal With College Expenses

Computers and the Internet have become integral parts of education by providing access to online courses, learning and research. It is virtually impossible to be enrolled in postsecondary education without a computer, which is needed to complete written assignments, type reports, prepare theses and access the Internet.

Recent tax regulations have acknowledged the fact that computers, peripheral equipment, certain types of nonentertainment software, Internet access and related services are essential for postsecondary education. Thus, when those items are used primarily by a beneficiary of a qualified state tuition (Sec 529) plan, the cost of the items can be reimbursed from the plan’s funds, tax-free.

In addition, the regulations for the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) have been modified (effective in 2016) to clarify that the AOTC’s definition of qualified tuition and related expenses includes books, supplies and any other equipment that is required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible institution. For this purpose, the materials must be needed for “meaningful attendance or enrollment” in a course of study; they can be purchased from the institution or an outside vendor.

Computers are not specifically listed in the new AOTC regulations, but the wording certainly implies that a computer qualifies as long as it is required for meaningful attendance. This change is so new that there is no precedent for how the IRS will apply the regulations to computers, as the regulations do not specifically include them. To be on the safe side, each student seeking the credit should get an instructor to write a letter (on school letterhead) stating, “A computer is required for meaningful attendance.

For more information regarding which education expenses qualify for Sec 529 plan reimbursements or for the AOTC, please give this office a call.

Borrowing Money to Finance an Education?

If you are considering borrowing funds to finance your education or the education of your spouse or children, you may wish to take advantage of the available tax benefits.

If you itemize your deductions and have sufficient equity in your home, you might consider borrowing the needed cash from your home. Generally, homeowners can take $100,000 of equity debt on their home and still deduct interest against the regular tax. Unfortunately, the interest on equity debt is not deductible against the alternative minimum tax (AMT), so consider other alternatives first if you are subject to the AMT. However, even if you are subject to the AMT, your best option may still be taking equity from your home. You may lose the benefit of the interest deduction, but the low interest rate on home loans is still in your favor.

If you don’t itemize your deductions or are subject to the AMT, you may still be able to utilize the above-the-line education interest deduction. This deduction has several restrictive qualifications and is limited to a maximum annual deduction of $2,500. It is phased-out ratably for taxpayers with an AGI (income) of $65,000 to $80,000 ($135,000 to $165,000 for joint returns). These amounts are for 2017; contact this office for the amounts for other years.

The above-the-line interest deduction may only be claimed by a person who is legally obligated to make the payments on the qualified educational loan. However, tax regulations allow payments on above-the–line education interest made by someone other than the taxpayer/borrower to be treated as a gift, allowing the interest to be deductible by the taxpayer.

The above-the-line deduction is not limited to interest on government student loans. The interest paid on other types of loans qualifies, including a home equity loan and even credit card interest, if only qualified education expenses are charged on the account. The borrowed funds must be used solely for qualified educational purposes, and the lender cannot be a relative. Generally, the funds must be used for qualified expenses within a reasonable period of time, usually 90 days before or after borrowing the funds. A home equity line of credit can be used to meet these requirements by paying education expenses as they become due, provided that the loan is not used for another purpose.

If you are considering borrowing money to pay for education, it may be appropriate to consult with this office, since there are other limitations. Please call for assistance.

Thinking of Tossing Old Tax Records? Read This First

Now that your taxes have been completed for 2016, you are probably wondering which old records can be discarded. If you are like most taxpayers, you have records from years ago that you are afraid to throw away. It would be helpful to understand why the records must be kept in the first place.

Generally, we keep tax records for two basic reasons: (1) in case the IRS or a state agency decides to question the information reported on our tax returns, and (2) to keep track of the tax basis of our capital assets so that the tax liability can be minimized when we dispose of them.

With certain exceptions, the statute for assessing additional taxes is three years from the return due date or the date the return was filed, whichever is later. However, the statute of limitations for many states is one year longer than the federal law. In addition to lengthened state statutes that cloud the recordkeeping issue, the federal three-year assessment period is extended to six years if a taxpayer omits from gross income an amount that is more than 25 percent of the income reported on a tax return. And, of course, the statutes don’t begin running until a return has been filed. There is no limit where a taxpayer files a false or fraudulent return to evade taxes.

If an exception does not apply to you, for federal purposes, most of your tax records that are more than three years old can probably be discarded; add a year or so to that if you live in a state with a longer statute.

Examples – Sue filed her 2013 tax return before the due date of April 15, 2014. She will be able to dispose of most of the 2013 records safely after April 15, 2017. On the other hand, Don files his 2013 return on June 2, 2014. He needs to keep his records at least until June 2, 2017. In both cases, the taxpayers may opt to keep their records a year or two longer if their states have a statute of limitations longer than three years. Note: If a due date falls on a Saturday, Sunday or holiday, the due date becomes the next business day.

The big problem! The problem with the carte blanche discarding of records for a particular year because the statute of limitations has expired is that many taxpayers combine their normal tax records and the records needed to substantiate the basis of capital assets. These need to be separated, and the basis records should not be discarded before the statute expires for the year in which the asset is disposed. Thus, it makes more sense to keep those records separated by asset. The following are examples of records that fall into that category:

  • Stock acquisition data – If you own stock in a corporation, keep the purchase records for at least four years after the year the stock is sold. This data will be needed to prove the amount of profit (or loss) you had on the sale.
  • Stock and mutual fund statements (If you reinvest dividends) – Many taxpayers use the dividends they receive from stocks or mutual funds to buy more shares of the same stock or fund. The reinvested amounts add to the basis in the property and reduce gain when it is finally sold. Keep statements at least four years after the final sale.
  • Tangible property purchase and improvement records – Keep records of home, investment, rental property, or business property acquisitions AND related capital improvements for at least four years after the underlying property is sold.

For example, because of the generous $250,000 ($500,000 for joint filers) home gain exclusion available to most homeowners, some taxpayers have become lax in maintaining home improvement records, thinking the large exclusions will cover any potential appreciation in the home’s value. But that exclusion may not always be enough to cover sale gains, particularly in markets where property values have steadily risen, so records of home improvements are vital. Records can be important, so please use caution when discarding them.

If you sell securities (stocks, bonds or mutual funds) that result in a loss, after you’ve offset any capital gains from other sales, you may end up with a larger loss than can be deducted in one year (maximum $3,000 or $1,500 if married filing separate). In that case, you are allowed to carry over the excess loss to use in future years. When this happens, you will need to keep the purchase and sale records of the securities for four years after filing the return when the last of the carryover loss is used.

Similarly, if you have a net operating loss from a business that is being carried forward to future years, you’ll need to keep the business records from the loss year until four years after the return on which all of the loss was used up.

What about the tax returns themselves? While disposing of the backup documents used to prepare the returns can usually be done after the statutory period has expired, you may want to consider keeping a copy of your tax returns (the 1040 and attached schedules/statements plus your state return) indefinitely. If you don’t have room to keep a copy of the paper returns, digitizing them is an option.

If you have questions about whether or not to retain certain records, give this office a call first; it is better to check before discarding something that might be needed down the road.

Financial KPIs: What They Are and What You Need to Know

As a small business owner, the importance of making purpose-driven decisions is something that cannot be overstated enough. Every choice that you make must be one with a particular goal in mind – whether it’s to attract new customers, increase revenue, decrease expenditures, increase liquidity, etc. But simply making the decision itself is not enough – you also have to find a way to measure the result of your action against what you were trying to accomplish in the first place.

This, in essence, is what KPIs are all about.

Also commonly referred to as “key performance indicators,” they represent the best kind of measurable value that reflect how we’ll you’re doing in a particular context – the kind that is objectionable, black and white, and provides you with a clear indication of what you need to be doing moving forward. Thanks, in particular, to the evolution of cloud computing and the advent of real-time accounting, it’s easier than ever for business owners to monitor the health of their organization through financial KPIs.

When doing so, however, you need to keep a few key things in mind.

Financial KPI Considerations
Part of the reason why KPIs are so powerful in the first place is because they’re malleable – based on exactly what you’re trying to accomplish, you can take a micro look at a particular aspect of your finances to tell you how close or how far away you are from that goal.

With that in mind, it’s important to realize that there is no “one size fits all” approach to KPI selection. If you looked at the financials of your closest competitors, they might be tracking wildly different data than you are – even though you’re both operating in the same industry.

Because of this, you need to figure out the long-term goals that are most important to you first. Then, you can reverse engineer the KPIs that you should be watching to help guide you and your business in the right direction.

KPIs to Watch Out For
Now that you’ve got a deeper understanding of what KPIs measure in relation to your goals, it’s time to learn more about the specific KPIs that you should be paying attention to monitor those goals in real-time.

  • Operating Cash Flow. Also referred to as OCF, this points to the total amount of money your company is generating on a daily basis. This can be a great way to determine whether you’re able to maintain the positive cash flow needed for growth, or if you should start looking for external funding. OCF adjusts your net income for factors like depreciation, inventory fluctuations, accounts receivable changes and more.
  • Current Ratio. This KPI is an indication of whether or not your company can pay all of its financial obligations in one year. This takes into consideration all of your current assets and compares them with your current liabilities. A Current Ratio of less than one tells you that you will NOT be able to fulfill all financial obligations, thus requiring additional cash flow. For the best results, try to keep Current Ratio between 1.5 and 3.
  • Burn Rate. This clues you in on the rate at which your company is spending money on a weekly, monthly or annual basis. This is particularly helpful for companies that don’t necessarily go through extensive financial analysis, as it’s a quick look into whether or not your current operating costs are sustainable in the long-term.
  • Income. This, simply put, looks at how much money you’re generating. Based on how much money you’d like to be generating, you can then make a determination about how much you need to increase sales and, thus, set about trying to figure out how to do that.
  • Profit/Loss. This is a quick look into whether your company’s expenditures are MORE than your income.
  • Cash Flow Forecasting. Remember that improper cash flow is literally the number one reason why most businesses close prematurely. If you want to get better at cash flow management, you need to start taking a deeper look at what your cash flow is predicted to be both in the short and long-term. Diving deeper into this topic now can help you mitigate some fairly significant risks later on.

If you have any additional questions about KPIs that you’d like to see answered, or if you have other concerns that you’d like to have addressed in a little more detail, please feel free to contact our office today – someone is ready and waiting to provide you with the personalized level of care and attention to detail that you deserve.

QuickBooks Tip: How to Keep Your QuickBooks Data Safe

You work hard to make sure your QuickBooks data is accurate. Make sure it’s safe, too.

Your QuickBooks company file contains some of the most sensitive information on your computer. You may have customers’ credit card numbers and employees’ Social Security numbers. An intruder who captured all that data could create tremendous problems for you and a lot of other people.

That’s probably the worst-case scenario. But other situations could also spell disaster for your business, which involves losing your company data through fraud, hacking, or simple technical failures.

We can’t overstate the vital importance of protecting your QuickBooks company file, especially your customer and payroll information. Whether someone steals it or it’s inaccessible for another reason, it’s gone. Keeping your business going after such a loss would be very difficult – maybe even impossible. Here’s what we suggest to prevent that.

Internal Safeguards
No business owner wants to believe that his or her employees could use their QuickBooks access to commit fraud. But it happens. Your company file contains credit card and checking account data that could be used for nefarious purposes. As we discussed last spring, you can restrict user access to specific areas and actions of QuickBooks.

You can limit your employees who have QuickBooks access to certain areas and activities.

To get started, open the Company menu and select Set Up Users and Passwords | Set Up Users. The User List window opens. It should have at least one entry there, for you (Admin). Click Add User and enter the employee’s name and password in the next window that opens, then click Next.

Tip: Your QuickBooks license limits you to a specified number of users. If you’re not sure how many you’re allowed, click F2 to open the Product Information page. The number of user licenses you’ve paid for appears in the upper left.

On the next page of this wizard, click the button in front of Selected Areas of QuickBooks. The following screens will let you define that employee’s access permissions in areas like Sales and Accounts Receivable, Inventory, and Payroll and Employees. When you’ve clicked through every screen and reviewed the summary displayed, click Finish. Your user will now be able to sign in and access the areas you specified.

You can—and should—take numerous other steps to keep your QuickBooks data safe. If your company is big enough to have a dedicated IT expert, he or she will handle most of this. But there’s a lot you can do on your own to prevent data loss and theft.

Keep Your Operating System and Applications Updated

Don’t ignore this dialog box.

Software companies’ occasional updates offer more than just adding new features and fixing bugs. They sometimes refresh your software to ensure greater security based on new threats. Don’t forget about those all-important antivirus and anti-malware applications, as well as QuickBooks itself.

Keep Your Networks Safe
Just as a cold virus spreads around your office, so, too, can unwanted intrusions like computer viruses. Don’t allow an electronic epidemic to get started; take steps ahead of time to prevent it:

  • Discourage employees from excessive web browsing. This can be a hard rule to enforce, as some employees probably need internet access for research, timecard entry, and other work-related tasks. Create a firm policy legislating what workers can and can’t do on company-issued equipment (including tablets and smartphones) or any personal devices that use your wireless network.
  • Ask employees to refrain from using public networks on work equipment. Enforce the rules vigorously, and make compliance an element of performance evaluations.
  • Minimize app installations on business smartphones. Employees should ask for approval. Viruses and malware get in that way, as well as through some websites and email attachments.
  • Use monitoring software. If you can’t afford to pay for “managed IT” (a la carte, third-party IT services), install an application that alerts you to problems.

Use Common Sense
You can fight data loss and theft by being cautious. Be diligent about backups, and if you create them on a local, portable device, don’t leave them in the office. Cloud-based solutions are better. Shred papers that have sensitive information on them. Log out of QuickBooks when you’re not using it or when you leave your office. Be aware of who may be around you, looking over your shoulder. We take data security very seriously in our own office, and we strongly encourage you to do the same. Contact us if you’re at all concerned with your own data safety, and we’ll come up with a plan together.

Using Home Equity for Business Needs

Small business owners frequently find it difficult to obtain financing for their businesses without pledging their personal assets. With home mortgage interest rates at historic lows, tapping into your home equity is a tempting alternative but one with tax ramifications that should be carefully considered.

Generally, interest on debt used to acquire and operate your business is deductible against that business. However, depending upon the circumstances of the loan structure, debt secured by your home may be nondeductible, only partially deductible or wholly deductible against your business.

Home mortgage interest is limited to the interest on $1 million of acquisition debt and $100,000 of equity debt secured by a taxpayer’s primary residence and designated second home. The interest on the debts within these limits can only be treated as home mortgage interest and must be deducted as part of your itemized deductions. Only the excess can be deducted for your business, provided that the use of the funds can be traced to your business use. This creates a number of problems:

  • Using the Standard Deduction – If you do not itemize your deductions, you will be unable to deduct the interest on the first $100,000 of the equity debt, which cannot be allocated to your business.
  • Subject to the AMT – Even if you do itemize your deductions, if you happen to be subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT), you still would not be able to deduct the first $100,000 of equity debt interest, since it is not allowed as a deduction for AMT purposes.
  • Subject to Self-Employment (SE) Tax – Your self-employment tax (Social Security and Medicare) is based on the net profits from your business. If the net profit is higher, because not all of the interest is deductible by the business, your SE tax may also be higher.

    Example: Suppose the mortgage you incurred to purchase your home (acquisition debt) has a current balance of $165,000 and your home is worth $400,000. You need $150,000 to acquire a new business. To obtain the needed cash at the best interest rates, you decide to refinance your home mortgage for $315,000. The interest on this new loan will be allocated as follows:

    New Loan: $ 315,000
    Part Representing Acquisition Debt – 165,000   52.38%
    Balance $ 150,000
    First $100,000 Treated as Home Equity Debt – 100,000   31.75%
    Balance Traced to Business Use $ 50,000   15.87% 

    If the interest for the year on the refinanced debt was $10,000, then that interest would be deducted as follows:

    Itemized Deduction Regular Tax      $ 8,413   84.13%
    Itemized Deduction Alternative Minimum Tax $ 5,238   52.38%
    Business Expense      $ 1,587   15.87%

There is a special tax election that allows you to treat any specified home loan as not secured by the home. If you file this election, then interest on the loan can no longer be deducted as home mortgage interest, since tax law requires that qualified home mortgage debt be secured by the home. However, this election would allow the normal interest tracing rules to apply to that unsecured debt. This might be a smart move if the entire proceeds were used for business and all of the interest expense could be treated as a business expense. However, if the loan were a mixed-use loan and part of it actually represented home debt (such as a refinanced home loan), then the part that represented the home debt could not be allocated back to the home, and the interest on that portion of the debt would become nondeductible and would provide no tax benefit.

Example: Using the same scenario as the previous example but electing to treat the mortgage as unsecured by the home, the deductible business interest for the year would be $4,762 [($150,000/$315,000) x $10,000]. None of the balance of the interest would be deductible.

As you can see, using equity from your home can create some complex tax situations. Please contact this office for assistance in determining the best solution for your particular tax situation.