Archive for the ‘risk’ Tag

Do I Need to Set up an LLC or Incorporate?

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

October 3, 2014

Two weeks ago I discussed some of the pitfalls of using an online service to help you set up an entity such as an LLC, C-Corporation, or S-Corporation for your business.  In a nutshell, you really need tailored advice from an accountant and an attorney to address your circumstances and you should use an attorney to properly set everything up.  I have found that people that utilize these services generally do not have a good understanding of what they did and why, and they don’t know much about their ongoing responsibilities, the importance of carrying them out, or the consequences of failing to do so.

Now I am going to turn the tables and ask you why you think you need a formal entity at all?  When I say this I am thinking about small businesses getting started.  If your accounting and legal advice is from family or friends, hopefully they actually are accountants and business attorneys and reviewing your WHOLE situation.  Or maybe you read something online – maybe even an article like this!  Be careful what you read!

My personal feeling is that there are a lot of small businesses out there that have set up entities prematurely, and have entangled themselves in a lot of extra cost, record keeping, and administrative hassle for very little benefit.

The vast majority of people setting up entities for small businesses do it because of perceived liability protection for their personal assets.  Some do it for certain circumstances that can lead to tax benefits, and others do it in rare circumstances where a major customer requires it.

It is important to understand there is no bullet proof solution when it comes to shielding yourself from liability.  There is almost always a way to spoil a good plan.  Legions of lawyers make their living at this.  Layers of protection are often implemented to mitigate the risk of chinks in your armor.  For instance have an entity and also having insurance would be a good example.

It is also important to understand that entities do not protect you from all forms of claims.  For instance, professionals cannot be shielded by an entity for acts of malpractice.  Malpractice insurance, however, could cover you.

If you do not respect the entity by following all the rules of corporations, s-corporations, or LLCs promulgated by various government authorities, then if there is a lawsuit, the courts could say, “You didn’t respect the entity, so why should we?”  They could look right through your entity and allow a creditor to go after your personal assets.

Small businesses are at a much higher risk for this since they generally don’t have a legal department trying to keep up with all the details!  I have seen small businesses that have gone through the hassle and expense of setting up corporations, filing tax returns and paying the California Franchise Tax each year and yet they have never held a corporate meeting or elected officers, never recorded any corporate minutes (and even if it is just you wearing all hats, you can’t ignore these things!), and treated the bank accounts of the company like an extension of their personal checking account.  And all the while they were thinking they had solid liability protection because they were a corporation…uhh no.  The devil is in the details as it is said!

Besides the initial cost of setting up an entity properly which could run two or three thousand dollars or more, you then have to file separate business tax returns, file an informational filing with the Secretary of State, possibly have an attorney draft a document or two each year, have better accounting for the tax returns (true double-entry accounting which includes an accurate balance sheet in addition to the profit and loss statement), and then you get the privilege of paying California at least $800 a year whether you make a dime or not.  So you have at least another couple thousand dollars each year of ongoing costs (more if you need to hire a bookkeeper when you find out that QuickBooks actually requires a fairly good amount of accounting knowledge to operate it properly.)

If the inherent risk of the business is relatively small or moderate, and especially if you are starting very small and do not even know if the business is going to be successful, then I think you need to carefully way the benefits and costs.  Could you just carry really good insurance and mitigate your risk to an acceptable level?  Do you need the additional layer of protection?  You can always incorporate or set up an LLC later.  Do you have employees, and what amount of risk do they expose you to?  Are they driving vehicles a lot for your business?  Or do you have rental property with lots of tenants?  Maybe you are a free-lance graphic artist designing business cards remotely from your home – not much risk there!  What are you trying to protect anyway – maybe the bulk of your personal assets you have would be considered exempt assets from creditors already? Although attorneys are generally risk-averse because they see all the things that can go wrong, and therefore would prefer to set up an entity, I think these types of discussions can be had with them and really question if it is right to set up an entity for your business for liability reasons.

Taxwise, there can be benefits to setting up an entity, depending on your circumstances, but it is rarely a driving force in and of itself for most small businesses.  The most common one people ask about deals with reducing self-employment taxes for the owner of an S-corporation.  There are ways this can be successful, but it is an issue that is in jeopardy of being eliminated.  It also has the drawback of possibly reducing your future Social Security benefits – although our government will probably beat you to the punch on that one anyway.

If you read this article and think, gee, I am not sure I really need the entity I have – do not just ignore the entity and pretend it doesn’t exist anymore!  Besides getting the proper tailored advice for you, you generally must properly dissolve it, or you will be plagued with continuing mandates for tax returns as well as Franchise Tax fees to California.  (There are limited circumstances where you can just walk away.)

In summary, get competent advice from an accountant and an attorney in light of YOUR facts and circumstances before jumping into an entity.  And question its necessity if you are small or if your business has low or moderate inherent risk and you have access to insurance that could protect you sufficiently.

Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

What are Your Chances of Being Audited? Part I – Audit Statistics

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

May 16, 2014

I have a diverse base of clients, but there is one thing that many of them have in common: they all know the phrase, “…but I don’t want to raise any red flags.”  The part prior to the “but” generally explains how he or she wants to push the limits and minimize the tax liability.  Then I let them in on a little secret, “Did you know the IRS is partially color blind?”

I say this because a component of audit selection is a random statistical process whereupon everyone gets a chance to spin the audit wheel.  But the majority of returns are selected for audit because of, well, “red flags.”  In this issue I will speak about some of the juicy numbers of audit likelihood, and in two weeks, we will discuss some of the methods of selection and possible red flags.

Looking back over the past 16 years of data released by the IRS, you will probably find comfort in knowing that the overall audit selection rate for individuals has generally been close to or under one percent.  In 2013 there were 1,404,931 audits on the 145,819,388 tax returns filed, or a 0.96 percent audit rate!  When most people think of an audit, however, they think of having to meet with a beady-eyed pencil pusher whose sole mission in life is to cause them stress and shake down every last dime out of their pocket.  In reality, only about 25 percent of those audited actually meet with an auditor in a “field audit.”  So now your odds are only 1 out of every 424 people!

The majority of the audits are handled by correspondence mail, and are generally very narrowly focused just asking you to send in supporting documentation on a limited scope of items.  It is less intrusive, but sometimes can actually be more challenging to handle since the auditors do not have to look you in the eye, and are generally hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.  It is also evident from my experience that a lack of training in tax law is prevalent by those reviewing the correspondence audits.

When people are selected for audit, they generally say, “why are they wasting their time on me, shouldn’t they be going after the bigger fish.”  What they are really saying is, “I really don’t care who they audit as long as it isn’t me!”  But to honor their words, you will find that the IRS does in fact follow the money for the most part.  The more money you make, the more likely you are to be audited according to the statistics the IRS releases.

The overall audit rate for individuals making less than $200,000 in 2013 was 0.88 percent.  For those making over $200,000 per year, the rate jumped to 3.26 percent.  And for those making over $1,000,000, the rate jumped to 10.85 percent.  The other big difference is that you are two-and-a-half more times likely to have a field audit than a correspondence audit when making over $200,000 or over $1,000,000.

The overall audit rate for business returns such as C-corporations, S-corporations and Partnerships in 2013 was 0.61 percent of the 9,938,483 returns filed.  Partnerships and S-corporations had the lowest percentage at 0.42 percent, generally since the income passes through and is taxed to the individual owners instead.  C-corporation audit rates, however, vary even more drastically than individual rates – small corporations with less than $10 million in assets had a 0.95 percent audit rate.  Corporations with $10 million to $50 million in assets had a 6.98 percent audit rate, $50 million to $100 million – 15.51 percent, $100 – $250 million – 19.43 percent, and one out of every three corporations with assets over $250 million were audited!  So yes, the IRS does go after the big fish!

Clients will sometimes receive threatening letters indicating that if they do not respond by a certain date, that liens could be placed or their assets could be seized.  I have always found “seizure” to be an overly aggressive choice of words at the early juncture these letters will often arrive, and it is telling that only 547 IRS seizures occurred in the entire country in 2013.

Finally, another interesting statistic for those that find it thrilling to not report income (a.k.a. tax evasion); if you ever have a Special Agent from the Treasury Department show up at your door, I suggest you take that seriously.  They are basically your beady-eyed pencil pushers…but with guns!   There were 4,364 criminal investigation prosecutions recommended in 2013…and the conviction rate was 93.1 percent.  The average sentence for tax and tax related cases was 31 months in prison.  Remember, avoiding taxes through planning, is fine, but evading taxes is a place you never want to be!

Given all these statistics, you may also find it interesting to know that the IRS budget has been cut by close to five percent for 2014, and they have the fewest number of employees in the past 16 years.  I am not sure this is really a good thing, as it will surely reduce the number of qualified individuals trying to wield an already overburdened system, but it will likely mean your risk of audit will be even lower.

In two weeks we will talk more about red flags and audit selection.

Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog.

IRS Circular 230 Notice: To the extent this article concerns tax matters, it is not intended to be used and cannot be used by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.