The IRS opened the 2018 income tax return filing season on January 28. Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline, this year you should consider filing as soon as you can. Why? You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and reap other benefits, too.

What is tax identity theft?
In a tax identity theft scheme, a thief uses your personal information to file a fraudulent tax return early in the filing season and claim a bogus refund.

You discover the fraud when you file your return and are informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with your Social Security number has already been filed for the same tax year. While you should ultimately be able to prove that your return is the legitimate one, tax identity theft can cause major headaches to straighten out and significantly delay your refund.

Filing early may be your best defense: If you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a would-be thief that will be rejected — not yours.

Continue Reading File Your 2018 Income Tax Return Sooner Rather Than Later…

Churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious congregations aren’t required to file tax returns, so they might not regularly hire independent accountants. But regardless of size, religious organizations often are subject to other requirements, such as paying unrelated business income tax (UBIT) and properly classifying employees.

Without the oversight of tax authorities or outside accountants, religious leaders may not be aware of all requirements to which they’re subject. This can leave their organizations vulnerable to fraud and its trustees and employees subject to liabilities.

Common Vulnerabilities
To effectively prevent financial and other critical mistakes, make sure your religious congregation complies with IRS rules and federal and state laws. In particular, pay attention to:

  • Employee classification. Determine which workers in your organization are full-time employees and which are independent contractors. Depending on many factors, such as the amount of control your organization has over them, their responsibilities, and their form of compensation, individuals you consider independent contractors may need to be reclassified as employees.
  • Clergy wages. Most clergy should be treated as employees and receive W-2 forms. Typically, they’re exempt from Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes and federal withholding but are subject to self-employment tax on wages. A parsonage (or rental) allowance can reduce income tax, but not self-employment tax.
  • UBIT. If your organization regularly engages in any type of business activity that’s unrelated to its religious mission, be aware of certain tax and reporting rules. Income from such activities could be subject to UBIT.
  • Lobbying. Your organization shouldn’t devote a substantial part of its activities in attempting to influence legislation. Otherwise you might risk your tax-exempt status and face potential penalties.

Trust and Protect
Faith groups can be particularly vulnerable to fraud because they generally foster an environment of trust. Also, their leaders may be reluctant to punish offenders. Just keep in mind that even the most devout and long-standing members of your congregation are capable of embezzlement when faced with extreme circumstances.

To ensure employees and volunteers can’t help themselves to collections, require that at least two people handle all contributions. They should count cash in a secure area and verify the contents of offering envelopes. Next, they should document their collection activity in a signed report. For greater security, encourage your members to make electronic payments on your website or sign up for automatic bank account deductions.

Seek Expertise
Although your religious congregations are subject to less IRS scrutiny than even your fellow not-for-profit organizations, that doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore financial best practices. Contact your advisors for guidance.

Jen: This is the PKF Texas Entrepreneur’s Playbook. I’m Jen Lemanski, and I’m back again with Annjeanette Yglesias, one of our tax managers and a member of our not-for-profit team. Annjeanette, welcome back to the Playbook.

Annjeanette: Thanks, Jen. It’s good to be here.

Jen: So, not-for-profit… you work with different organizations, and I think the most popular type of not-for-profit organization is 501(c)(3), correct?

Annjeanette: Yes, that’s correct. There are over 30 different types of nonprofit organizations, according to the internal revenue code, and 501(c)(3) organizations are definitely the most popular. Those organizations have purposes for educational, scientific, religious, prevention of cruelty to animals—those types of organizations fall within 501(c)(3).

Jen: So, are there any limitations that we need to be aware of for not-for-profit organizations?

Annjeanette: Well, that really depends. 501(c)(3) organizations can fall into two categories: either a public charity or a private foundation. Private foundations definitely have more restrictions associated with them than public charities do.

Jen: So, there’s different tax rules for each type of entity, correct?

Annjeanette: That’s correct, and the tax rules depend on whether the 501(c)(3) is a public charity or a private foundation, because private foundations have more restrictive activity rules than public charities do.

Jen: And what type of restrictions are there?

Annjeanette: For example, the IRS requires that private foundations distribute a certain amount of their funds annually, and, also, private foundations are subject to a 1% to 2% excise tax on their net investment income. Those two rules are not applicable to public charities. Also, private foundations are restricted in the amount of voting stock that they can hold in a private company, as well as there are several rules that the IRS imposes regarding self-dealing and self-dealing really deals with substantial contributors and any interested persons of the organization.

Jen: So, does the 990 come into play? I would assume that they know the different limitations, but that’s where they call you, right?

Annjeanette: That’s right. If any organization has a question on if they have to follow any of these restrictions, they can certainly call us, and we can walk them through it.

Jen: Perfect. Well, it sounds like there’s a lot more to talk about, and we’ll get you back.

Annjeanette: Sounds good.

Jen: To learn more about how PKF Texas can help your not-for-profit organization, visit PKFTexas.com/notforprofit. This has been another Thought Leader production brought to you by PKF Texas The Entrepreneur’s Playbook. Tune in next week for another chapter.

IRS rules governing private foundations are complex and include many exceptions, which is why your foundation needs to write and follow a detailed conflict-of-interest policy. Taking this proactive step can help you avoid potentially costly public and IRS attention.

Casting a Wide Net
Conflict-of-interest policies are critical for all not-for-profits. But foundations are subject to stricter rules and must go the extra mile to avoid anything that might be perceived as self-dealing. Specifically, transactions between private foundations and disqualified persons are prohibited.

The IRS casts a wide net when defining “disqualified persons,” including substantial contributors, managers, officers, directors, trustees and people with large ownership interests in corporations or partnerships that make substantial contributions to the foundation. Their family members are disqualified, too. In addition, when a disqualified person owns more than 35% of a corporation or partnership, that business is considered disqualified.

Avoiding Dangerous Transactions
Prohibited transactions can be hard to identify because there are many exceptions. But, in general, you should ensure that disqualified persons don’t engage in the following transactions with your foundation:

  • Selling, exchanging or leasing property,
  • Making or receiving loans or extending credit,
  • Providing or receiving goods, services or facilities, or
  • Receiving compensation or reimbursed expenses.

Disqualified persons also shouldn’t agree to pay money or property to government officials on your behalf.

Facing the Consequences
What happens if you violate the rules? Your foundation’s manager and the disqualified person may be subject to an initial excise tax (5% and 10%, respectively) of the amount involved and,if the transaction isn’t corrected quickly, an additional tax of up to 200% of the amount. Although liability is limited for foundation managers ($40,000 for any one act), self-dealing individuals enjoy no such limits. In some cases, private foundations that engage in self-dealing lose their tax-exempt status.

Private foundations that run afoul of the IRS usually have good intentions. You may assume, for example, that transactions with insiders are acceptable so long as they’re fair or benefit your foundation. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Most activities defined by the IRS as self-dealing — regardless of whom or what they reward — are off-limits.

If you’re unsure about whether a transaction might violate IRS rules, please contact us.

Because donations to charity of cash or property generally are tax deductible (if you itemize), it only seems logical that the donation of something even more valuable to you — your time — would also be deductible. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Donations of time or services aren’t deductible. It doesn’t matter if it’s simple administrative work, such as checking in attendees at a fundraising event, or if it’s work requiring significant experience and expertise that would be much more costly to the charity if it had to pay for it, such as skilled carpentry or legal counsel.

However, you potentially can deduct out-of-pocket costs associated with your volunteer work.

The Basic Rules
As with any charitable donation, for you to be able to deduct your volunteer expenses, the first requirement is that the organization be a qualified charity. You can use the IRS’s “Tax Exempt Organization Search” tool (formerly “Select Check”) at irs.gov to find out.

Assuming the charity is qualified, you may be able to deduct out-of-pocket costs that are:

  • Unreimbursed,
  • Directly connected with the services you’re providing,
  • Incurred only because of your charitable work, and
  • Not “personal, living or family” expenses.

Supplies, Uniforms and Transportation
A wide variety of expenses can qualify for the deduction. For example, supplies you use in the activity may be deductible. And the cost of a uniform you must wear during the activity may also be deductible (if it’s required and not something you’d wear when not volunteering).

Transportation costs to and from the volunteer activity generally are deductible, either the actual cost or 14 cents per charitable mile driven. But you have to be the volunteer. If, say, you drive your elderly mother to the nature center where she’s volunteering, you can’t deduct the cost.

You also can’t deduct transportation costs you’d be incurring even if you weren’t volunteering. For example, if you take a commuter train downtown to work, then walk to a nearby volunteer event after work and take the train back home afterwards, you won’t be able to deduct your train fares. But if you take a cab from work to the volunteer event, then you potentially can deduct the cab fare for that leg of your transportation.

Volunteer Travel
Transportation costs may also be deductible for out-of-town travel associated with volunteering. This can include air, rail and bus transportation; driving expenses; and taxi or other transportation costs between an airport or train station and wherever you’re staying. Lodging and meal costs also might be deductible.

The key to deductibility is that there is no significant element of personal pleasure, recreation or vacation in the travel. That said, according to the IRS, the deduction for travel expenses won’t be denied simply because you enjoy providing services to the charitable organization. But you must be volunteering in a genuine and substantial sense throughout the trip. If only a small portion of your trip involves volunteer work, your travel expenses generally won’t be deductible.

Keep Careful Records
The IRS may challenge charitable deductions for out-of-pocket costs, so it’s important to keep careful records.

If you have questions about what volunteer expenses are and aren’t deductible, please contact us.

Charitable giving can be a powerful tax-saving strategy: Donations to qualified charities are generally fully deductible, and you have complete control over when and how much you give. Here are some important considerations to keep in mind this year to ensure you receive the tax benefits you desire.

Delivery date

To be deductible on your 2017 return, a charitable donation must be made by Dec. 31, 2017. According to the IRS, a donation generally is “made” at the time of its “unconditional delivery.” But what does this mean? Is it the date you, for example, write a check or make an online gift via your credit card? Or is it the date the charity actually receives the funds — or perhaps the date of the charity’s acknowledgment of your gift?

The delivery date depends in part on what you donate and how you donate it. Here are a few examples for common donations:

Check. The date you mail it.

Credit card. The date you make the charge.

Pay-by-phone account. The date the financial institution pays the amount.

Stock certificate. The date you mail the properly endorsed stock certificate to the charity.

Qualified charity status

To be deductible, a donation also must be made to a “qualified charity” — one that’s eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.

The IRS’s online search tool, Exempt Organizations (EO) Select Check, can help you more easily find out whether an organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. You can access EO Select Check at http://apps.irs.gov/app/eos. Information about organizations eligible to receive deductible contributions is updated monthly.

Potential impact of tax reform

The charitable donation deduction isn’t among the deductions that have been proposed for elimination or reduction under tax reform. In fact, income-based limits on how much can be deducted in a particular year might be expanded, which will benefit higher-income taxpayers who make substantial charitable gifts.

However, for many taxpayers, accelerating into this year donations that they might normally give next year may make sense for a couple of tax-reform-related reasons:

  1. If your tax rate goes down for 2018, then 2017 donations will save you more tax because deductions are more powerful when rates are higher.
  2. If the standard deduction is raised significantly and many itemized deductions are eliminated or reduced, then it may not make sense for you to itemize deductions in 2018, in which case you wouldn’t benefit from charitable donation deduction next year.

Many additional rules apply to the charitable donation deduction, so please contact us if you have questions about the deductibility of a gift you’ve made or are considering making — or the potential impact of tax reform on your charitable giving plans.

If you recently filed your 2016 income tax return (rather than filing for an extension) you may now be wondering whether it’s likely that your business could be audited by the IRS based on your filing. Here’s what every business owner should know about the process.

Catching the IRS’s eye

Many business audits occur randomly, but a variety of tax-return-related items are likely to raise red flags with the IRS and may lead to an audit. Here are a few examples:

  • Significant inconsistencies between previous years’ filings and your most current filing,
  • Gross profit margin or expenses markedly different from those of other businesses in your industry, and
  • Miscalculated or unusually high deductions.

An owner-employee salary that’s inordinately higher or lower than those in similar companies in his or her location can also catch the IRS’s eye, especially if the business is structured as a corporation.

Response measures

If you’re selected for an audit, you’ll be notified by letter. Generally, the IRS won’t make initial contact by phone. But if there’s no response to the letter, the agency may follow up with a call.

The good news is that many audits simply request that you mail in documentation to support certain deductions you’ve taken. Others may ask you to take receipts and other documents to a local IRS office. Only the most severe version, the field audit, requires meeting with one or more IRS auditors.

More good news: In no instance will the agency demand an immediate response. You’ll be informed of the discrepancies in question and given time to prepare. To do so, you’ll need to collect and organize all relevant income and expense records. If any records are missing, you’ll have to reconstruct the information as accurately as possible based on other documentation.

If the IRS selects you for an audit, our firm can help you:

  • Understand what the IRS is disputing (it’s not always crystal clear),
  • Gather the specific documents and information needed, and
  • Respond to the auditor’s inquiries in the most expedient and effective manner.

Don’t let an IRS audit ruin your year — be it this year, next year or whenever that letter shows up in the mail. By taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you track, document and file your company’s tax-related information, you’ll make an audit much less painful and even decrease the chances that one happens in the first place.

Each year, millions of taxpayers claim an income tax refund. Receiving a payment from the IRS for a few thousand dollars can be a pleasant influx of extra cash. But it means you were essentially giving the government an interest-free loan for close to a year, which isn’t the best use of your money.

Fortunately, there is a way to begin collecting your 2017 refund now: You can review the amounts you’re having withheld and/or what estimated tax payments you’re making, and adjust them to keep extra cash in your pocket during the year.

Reasons to modify amounts:

It’s particularly important to check your withholding and/or estimated tax payments if:

  • You received an especially large 2016 refund,
  • You’ve gotten married or divorced or added a dependent,
  • You’ve purchased a home,
  • You’ve started or lost a job, or
  • Your investment income has changed significantly.

Even if you haven’t encountered any major life changes during the past year, changes in the tax law may affect withholding levels, making it worthwhile to double-check your withholding or estimated tax payments.

Making a change:

You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even several times within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically will go into effect several weeks after the new Form W-4 is submitted. For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly payments are due.

While reducing withholdings or estimated tax payments will, indeed, put more money in your pocket now, you also need to be careful that you don’t reduce them too much. If you don’t pay enough tax during the year, you could end up owing interest and penalties when you file your return, even if you pay your outstanding tax liability by the April 2018 deadline.

If you’d like help determining what your withholding or estimated tax payments should be for the rest of the year, please contact us.

If you have incomplete or missing records and get audited by the IRS, your business will likely lose out on valuable deductions. Here are two recent U.S. Tax Court cases that help illustrate the rules for documenting deductions.

Case 1: Insufficient records

In the first case, the court found that a taxpayer with a consulting business provided no proof to substantiate more than $52,000 in advertising expenses and $12,000 in travel expenses for the two years in question.

The business owner said the travel expenses were incurred ”caring for his business.“ That isn’t enough. ”The taxpayer bears the burden of proving that claimed business expenses were actually incurred and were ordinary and necessary,“ the court stated. In addition, businesses must keep and produce ”records sufficient to enable the IRS to determine the correct tax liability.“ (TC Memo 2016-158)

Case 2: Documents destroyed

In another case, a taxpayer was denied many of the deductions claimed for his company. He traveled frequently for the business, which developed machine parts. In addition to travel, meals and entertainment, he also claimed printing and consulting deductions.

The taxpayer recorded expenses in a spiral notebook and day planner and kept his records in a leased storage unit. While on a business trip to China, his documents were destroyed after the city where the storage unit was located acquired it by eminent domain.

There’s a way for taxpayers to claim expenses if substantiating documents are lost through circumstances beyond their control (for example, in a fire or flood). However, the court noted that a taxpayer still has to ”undertake a ‘reasonable reconstruction,’ which includes substantiation through secondary evidence.“

The court allowed 40% of the taxpayer’s travel, meals and entertainment expenses, but denied the remainder as well as the consulting and printing expenses. The reason? The taxpayer didn’t reconstruct those expenses through third-party sources or testimony from individuals whom he’d paid. (TC Memo 2016-135)

Be prepared

Keep detailed, accurate records to protect your business deductions. Record details about expenses as soon as possible after they’re incurred (for example, the date, place, business purpose, etc.). Keep more than just proof of payment. Also keep other documents, such as receipts, credit card slips and invoices. If you’re unsure of what you need, check with us.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced on Tuesday, April 26 that victims of the deadly floods that took place on April 18, 2016 will have until September 1st to file their tax returns and make tax payments. Individuals who have homes or businesses in Fayette, Grimes, Harris and Parker Counties may qualify for the extension relief under Treas. Reg Sec. 301.7508A-1(d)2.

This extension includes 2015 income tax returns that were due April 18, the April 18 and June 15 deadlines for quarterly tax payments, along with a variety of business tax deadlines. The IRS will also waive late-deposit penalties for federal payroll and excise tax deposits if they are made by May 2, 2016.

The IRS will automatically apply the tax relief to those living in the above counties, but if you reside or have a business in a county outside of these and you were still affected by the floods, please call the IRS disaster hotline at 866-562-5227.

For more information, please visit the IRS webpage where they detail the extension and relief guidelines here.