Casualty loss deductions: You can claim one only for a federally declared disaster


Unforeseen disasters happen all the time and they may cause damage to your home or personal property. Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, eligible casualty loss victims could claim a deduction on their tax returns. But there are new restrictions that make these deductions much more difficult to take.

What’s considered a casualty for tax purposes? It’s a sudden, unexpected or unusual event, such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, earthquake, or fire; an accident or act of vandalism; or even a terrorist attack.

Unfavorable change

For losses incurred in 2018 through 2025, the TCJA generally eliminates deductions for personal casualty losses, except for losses due to federally declared disasters. For example, during 2019, there were presidential declarations of major disasters in parts of Iowa and Nebraska after severe storms and flooding. So victims there would be eligible for casualty loss deductions.

Note: There’s an exception to the general rule of allowing casualty loss deductions only in federally declared disaster areas. If you have personal casualty gains because your insurance proceeds exceed the tax basis of the damaged or destroyed property, you can deduct personal casualty losses that aren’t due to a federally declared disaster up to the amount of your personal casualty gains.

Special timing election

If your casualty loss is due to a federally declared disaster, a special election allows you to deduct the loss on your tax return for the preceding year. If you’ve already filed your return for the preceding year, you can file an amended return to make the election and claim the deduction in the earlier year. This can help you get extra cash when you need it.

This election must be made by no later than six months after the due date (without considering extensions) for filing your tax return for the year in which the disaster occurs. However, the election itself must be made on an original or amended return for the preceding year.

Calculating personal losses

To calculate the casualty loss deduction for personal-use property in an area declared a federal disaster, you must take the following three steps:

  1. Subtract any insurance proceeds.
  2. Subtract $100 per casualty event.
  3. Combine the results from the first two steps and then subtract 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year you claim the loss deduction.

Important: Another factor that now makes it harder to claim a casualty loss is that you must itemize deductions to claim one. For 2018 through 2025, fewer people will itemize, because the TCJA significantly increased the standard deduction amounts. For 2019, they are $12,200 for single filers, $18,350 for heads of households, and $24,400 for married joint-filing couples.
So even if you qualify for a casualty deduction, you might not get any tax benefit, because you don’t have enough itemized deductions.

We can help

These are the rules for personal property. Keep in mind that the rules for business or income-producing property are different. If you have disaster-related losses, we can help you navigate the complex rules.

© 2019


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Put a QOE report to work for you


An independent quality of earnings (QOE) report can be a valuable tool in mergers and acquisitions. It’s important for both buyers and sellers to look beyond the quantitative information provided by the selling company’s financial statements.

Quality matters

There’s a lack of guidance from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) regarding scope and format of a QOE report. As a result, these engagements may be customized to meet the needs of the party requesting the report.

Typically, QOE reports analyze the individual components of earnings (that is, revenue and expenses) on a month-to-month basis. The goals are twofold: 1) to determine whether earnings are sustainable, and 2) to identify potential risks and opportunities, both internal and external, that could affect the company’s ability to operate as a going concern.

Examples of issues that a QOE report might uncover include:

  • Deficient accounting policies and procedures,
  • Excessive concentration of revenue with one customer,
  • Transactions with undisclosed related parties,
  • Inaccurate period-end adjustments,
  • Unusual revenue or expense items,
  • Insufficient loss reserves, and
  • Overly optimistic prospective financial statements.

QOE analyses can be performed on financial statements that have been prepared in-house, as well as those that have been compiled, reviewed or audited by a CPA firm. Rather than focus on historical results and compliance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), QOE reports focus on how much cash flow the company is likely to generate for investors in the future.

Beyond EBITDA

Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) for the trailing 12 months is often the starting point for assessing earnings quality. To reflect a more accurate picture of a company’s operations, EBITDA may need to be adjusted for such items as:

  • Nonrecurring items, such as a loss from a natural disaster or a gain from an asset sale,
  • Above- or below-market owners’ compensation,
  • Discretionary expenses, and
  • Differences in accounting methods used by the company compared to industry peers.

In addition, QOE reports usually entail detailed ratio and trend analysis to identify unusual activity. Additional procedures can help determine whether changes are positive or negative.

For example, an increase in accounts receivable could result from revenue growth (a positive indicator) or a buildup of uncollectible accounts (a negative indicator). If it’s the former, the gross margin on incremental revenue should be analyzed to determine if the new business is profitable — or if the revenue growth results from aggressive price cuts.   

We can help

Using an objective accounting professional to provide a QOE report can help the parties stay focused on financial matters during M&A discussions and add credibility to management’s historical and prospective financial statements. Contact us if you’re in the market to buy or sell a business.
© 2019


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Could your business benefit from the tax credit for family and medical leave?


The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act created a new federal tax credit for employers that provide qualified paid family and medical leave to their employees. It’s subject to numerous rules and restrictions and the credit is only available for two tax years — those beginning between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2019. However, it may be worthwhile for some businesses.

The value of the credit

An eligible employer can claim a credit equal to 12.5% of wages paid to qualifying employees who are on family and medical leave, if the leave payments are at least 50% of the normal wages paid to them. For each 1% increase over 50%, the credit rate increases by 0.25%, up to a maximum credit rate of 25%.

An eligible employee is one who’s worked for your company for at least one year, with compensation for the preceding year not exceeding 60% of the threshold for highly compensated employees for that year. For 2019, the threshold for highly compensated employees is $125,000 (up from $120,000 for 2018). That means a qualifying employee’s 2019 compensation can’t exceed $72,000 (60% × $120,000).

Employers that claim the family and medical leave credit must reduce their deductions for wages and salaries by the amount of the credit.

Qualifying leave

For purposes of the credit, family and medical leave is defined as time off taken by a qualified employee for these reasons:

• The birth, adoption or fostering of a child (and to care for the child),
• To care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition,
• If the employee has a serious health condition,
• Any qualifying need due to an employee’s spouse, child or parent being on covered active duty in the Armed Forces (or being notified of an impending call or order to covered active duty), and
• To care for a spouse, child, parent or next of kin who’s a covered veteran or member of the Armed Forces.

Employer-provided vacation, personal, medical or sick leave (other than leave defined above) isn’t eligible.

When a policy must be established

The general rule is that, to claim the credit for your company’s first tax year that begins after December 31, 2017, your written family and medical leave policy must be in place before the paid leave for which the credit will be claimed is taken.

However, under a favorable transition rule for the first tax year beginning after December 31, 2017, your company’s written leave policy (or an amendment to an existing policy) is considered to be in place as of the effective date of the policy (or amendment) rather than the later adoption date.

Attractive perk

The new family and medical leave credit could be an attractive perk for your company’s employees. However, it can be expensive because it must be provided to all qualifying full-time employees. Consult with us if you have questions or want more information.
© 2019


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Effective social media marketing calls for a measured approach

As companies increase their investments in social media marketing, many are seeking ways to make it simpler and more cost-effective. Here are some ways to take a measured approach.

Pick your battles

Many marketers have realized that their companies don’t need to be on every social media platform. You just need to establish a strong presence on the few that best fit your business.

How do you determine that? For many companies, the answer is clear: Go where your competitors and customers are most active. You may need to pick a few different platforms and use them regularly until one or two emerge as clear favorites.

Maximize your reach

Simply getting a customer to “like” or “follow” your company may not generate sales or brand exposure. For example, whether Facebook posts will reach users’ “friends” is a function of the platform’s proprietary algorithm. And with so much news and other content flooding customers’ feeds, your updates may get lost in the shuffle.

In addition to posting on social media, your business can buy ads. Social media platforms sell ads (called “native ads”) that look like normal posts, not paid advertisements, and may appear at the top of customers’ feeds. Many businesses are buying these ads, but investing heavily in advertising reduces the cost advantages of social media marketing. Also, these ads may annoy some users.

Measure your results

Quantifying the results of social media marketing has historically been problematic. It’s easy to identify, at any given time, how many people follow you on Twitter or Instagram, but how many are likely to buy your products or services?

Software developers have responded by creating analytics programs that identify which platforms generate the most traffic to your website — and even more sophisticated programs that track an individual customer’s behaviors after viewing your posts. But, as with any software purchase, approach this one carefully. Ensure your employees will be able to use all necessary features and that you’ll be able to disseminate the data effectively.

Expand your interactions

When the time is right, you may want to use social media for more than just marketing. The most direct way to link social media to revenue is to allow customers to buy products directly on your social media page or app, rather than requiring them to click through to your website or call a salesperson. Of course, this functionality requires an upfront investment in secure e-commerce technology.

Some companies are also using social media to facilitate customer service. People tend to appreciate the quick response, but some complaints may be too sensitive or complicated to discuss publicly. So, it’s generally best to allow employees to respond to simpler questions online but train them to channel more complex issues to phone calls, emails or private messages.

Don’t get overwhelmed

Social media marketing can be a cost-effective way to build brand awareness and customer loyalty. But it’s also an ever-evolving sphere that can become overwhelming. Contact us for help measuring and managing the financial investment you make in your efforts.

© 2019



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Seniors: Medicare premiums could lower your tax bill


Americans who are 65 and older qualify for basic Medicare insurance, and they may need to pay additional premiums to get the level of coverage they desire. The premiums can be expensive, especially if you’re married and both you and your spouse are paying them. But one aspect of paying premiums might be positive: If you qualify, they may help lower your tax bill.   

Medicare premium tax deductions

Premiums for Medicare health insurance can be combined with other qualifying health care expenses for purposes of claiming an itemized deduction for medical expenses on your individual tax return. This includes amounts for “Medigap” insurance and Medicare Advantage plans. Some people buy Medigap policies because Medicare Parts A and B don’t cover all their health care expenses. Coverage gaps include co-payments, co-insurance, deductibles and other costs. Medigap is private supplemental insurance that’s intended to cover some or all gaps.

Fewer people now itemize

Qualifying for a medical expense deduction can be difficult for a couple of reasons. For 2019, you can deduct medical expenses only if you itemize deductions and only to the extent that total qualifying expenses exceeded 10% of AGI. (This threshold was 7.5% for the 2018 tax year.)

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubled the standard deduction amounts for 2018 through 2025. For 2019, the standard deduction amounts are $12,200 for single filers, $24,400 for married joint-filing couples and $18,350 for heads of households. So, fewer individuals are claiming itemized deductions.

However, if you have significant medical expenses (including Medicare health insurance premiums), you may itemize and collect some tax savings.

Important note: Self-employed people and shareholder-employees of S corporations can generally claim an above-the-line deduction for their health insurance premiums, including Medicare premiums. So, they don’t need to itemize to get the tax savings from their premiums.

Other deductible medical expenses

In addition to Medicare premiums, you can deduct a variety of medical expenses, including those for ambulance services, dental treatment, dentures, eyeglasses and contacts, hospital services, lab tests, qualified long-term care services, prescription medicines and others.

Keep in mind that many items that Medicare doesn’t cover can be written off for tax purposes, if you qualify. You can also deduct transportation expenses to get to medical appointments. If you go by car, you can deduct a flat 20-cents-per-mile rate for 2019, or you can keep track of your actual out-of-pocket expenses for gas, oil and repairs.

Need more information?

Contact us if you have additional questions about Medicare coverage options or claiming medical expense deductions on your personal tax return. Your advisor can help determine the optimal overall tax-planning strategy based on your personal circumstances.
© 2019


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Auditing accounting estimates and the use of specialists

The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) recently voted to finalize two related standards aimed at improving audits of accounting estimates and the work of specialists. Though the new, more consistent guidance would apply specifically to public companies, the effects would likely filter down to audits of private entities that use accounting estimates or rely on the work of specialists.

Estimates

Financial statements often report assets at fair value or use other types of accounting estimates, such as allowances for doubtful accounts, credit losses and impairments of long-lived assets. These estimates may involve some level of measurement uncertainty. So, they may be susceptible to misstatement and require more auditor focus.

PCAOB Release No. 2018-005, Auditing Accounting Estimates, Including Fair Value Measurements , aims to improve audits of estimates. The new risk-based standard would promote greater consistency in application. It would emphasize the importance of professional skepticism when auditors evaluate management’s estimates and the need to devote greater attention to potential management bias. Under the updated standard, auditors would consider both corroborating and contradictory evidence that’s obtained during the audit.

Use of specialists

Some accounting estimates may be easily determinable. But many are inherently subjective or complex, requiring the use of specialists. Examples include:

  • Actuaries to determine employee benefit obligations,
  • Engineers to determine obligations regarding environmental remediation, and
  • Appraisers to determine the value of intangible assets or real estate.

The audit guidance on using the work of specialists hasn’t changed much since it was originally published in the 1970s. It deals with auditors’ oversight of third-party specialists, as well as the auditor’s use of the work of a professional hired by management. Existing guidance requires auditors to evaluate the relationship of a specialist to the client, including situations that might impair the specialist’s objectivity. But it doesn’t provide specific requirements.

PCAOB Release No. 2018-006, Amendments to Auditing Standards for Auditor’s Use of the Work of Specialists , would provide more direction for carrying out that evaluation. The updated standard would extend the auditor’s responsibility for evaluating specialists beyond simply obtaining an understanding of their work. It would require auditors to perform additional procedures to evaluate the appropriateness of the company’s data, as well as significant assumptions and methods used. However, auditors wouldn’t be required to reperform the work of the company’s specialist.

Stay tuned

The PCAOB issued these related standards simultaneously at the end of 2018, and wants both to become effective for audits of financial statements for fiscal years ending on or after December 15, 2020. However, the updated guidance is pending approval by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Contact us to discuss how these updated standards are likely to affect your company’s audit procedures in the coming years.

© 2019



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Prepare for the worst with a business turnaround strategy

Many businesses have a life cycle that, as life cycles tend to do, concludes with a period of decline and failure. Often, the demise of a company is driven by internal factors — such as weak financial oversight, lack of management consensus or one-person rule.

External factors typically contribute, as well. These may include disruptive competitors; local, national or global economic changes; or a more restrictive regulatory environment.

But just because bad things happen doesn’t mean they have to happen to your company. To prepare for the worst, identify a business turnaround strategy that you can implement if a severe decline suddenly becomes imminent.

Warning signs

When a company is drifting toward serious trouble, there are usually warning signs. Examples include:

  • Serious deterioration in the accuracy or usage of financial measurements,
  • Poor results of key performance indicators — including working capital to assets, sales and retained earnings to assets, and book value to debt,
  • Adverse trends, such as lower margins, market share or working capital,
  • Rapid increase in debt and employee turnover, and
  • Drastic reduction in assessed business value.

Not every predicament that arises will threaten the very existence of your business. But when missteps and misfortune build up, the only thing that may save the company is a well-planned turnaround strategy.

5 stages of a turnaround

No two turnarounds are exactly alike, but they generally occur in five basic stages:

  1. Rapid assessment of the decline by external advisors,
  2. Re-evaluation of management and staffing,
  3. Emergency intervention to stabilize the business,
  4. Operational restoration to pursue or achieve profitability, and
  5. Full recovery and growth.

Each of these stages calls for a detailed action plan. Identify the advisors or even a dedicated turnaround consultant who can help you assess the damage and execute immediate moves. Prepare for the possibility that you’ll need to replace some managers and even lay off staff to reduce employment costs.

In the emergency intervention stage, a business does whatever is necessary to survive — including consolidating debt, closing locations and selling off assets. Next, restoring operations and pursuing profitability usually means scaling back to only those business segments that have achieved, or can achieve, decent gross margins.

Last, you’ll need to establish a baseline of profitability that equates to full recovery. From there, you can choose reasonable growth strategies that will move the company forward without leading it over another cliff.

In case of emergency

If your business is doing fine, there’s no need to create a minutely detailed turnaround plan. But, as part of your strategic planning efforts, it’s still a good idea to outline a general turnaround strategy to keep on hand in case of emergency. Our firm can help you devise either strategy. We can also assist you in generating financial statements and monitoring key performance indicators that help enable you to avoid crises altogether.

© 2019



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Responding to the nightmare of a data breach

It’s every business owner’s nightmare. Should hackers gain access to your customers’ or employees’ sensitive data, the very reputation of your company could be compromised. And lawsuits might soon follow.

No business owner wants to think about such a crisis, yet it’s imperative that you do. Suffering a data breach without an emergency response plan leaves you vulnerable to not only the damage of the attack itself, but also the potential fallout from your own panicked decisions.

5 steps to take

A comprehensive plan generally follows five steps once a data breach occurs:

1. Call your attorney. He or she should be able to advise you on the potential legal ramifications of the incident and what you should do or not do (or say) in response. Involve your attorney in the creation of your response plan, so all this won’t come out of the blue.

2. Engage a digital forensics investigator. Contact us for help identifying a forensic investigator that you can turn to in the event of a data breach. The preliminary goal will be to answer two fundamental questions: How were the systems breached? What data did the hackers access? Once these questions have been answered, experts can evaluate the extent of the damage.

3. Fortify your IT systems. While investigative and response procedures are underway, you need to proactively prevent another breach and strengthen controls. Doing so will obviously involve changing passwords, but you may also need to add firewalls, create deeper layers of user authentication or restrict some employees from certain systems.

4. Communicate strategically. No matter the size of the company, the communications goal following a data breach is essentially the same: Provide accurate information about the incident in a reasonably timely manner that preserves the trust of customers, employees, investors, creditors and other stakeholders.

Note that “in a reasonably timely manner” doesn’t mean “immediately.” Often, it’s best to acknowledge an incident occurred but hold off on a detailed statement until you know precisely what happened and can reassure those affected that you’re taking specific measures to control the damage.

5. Activate or adjust credit and IT monitoring services. You may want to initiate an early warning system against future breaches by setting up a credit monitoring service and engaging an IT consultant to periodically check your systems for unauthorized or suspicious activity. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a breach to do these things, but you could increase their intensity or frequency following an incident.

Inevitable risk

Data breaches are an inevitable risk of running a business in today’s networked, technology-driven world. Should this nightmare become a reality, a well-conceived emergency response plan can preserve your company’s goodwill and minimize the negative impact on profitability. We can help you budget for such a plan and establish internal controls to prevent and detect fraud related to (and not related to) data breaches.

© 2019



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Still working after age 70½? You may not have to begin 401(k) withdrawals


If you participate in a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k), you must generally begin taking required withdrawals from the plan no later than April 1 of the year after which you turn age 70½. However, there’s an exception that applies to certain plan participants who are still working for the entire year in which they turn 70½.

The basics of RMDs

Required minimum distributions (RMDs) are the amounts you’re legally required to withdraw from your qualified retirement plans and traditional IRAs after reaching age 70½. Essentially, the tax law requires you to tap into your retirement assets — and begin paying taxes on them — whether you want to or not.

Under the tax code, RMDs must begin to be taken from qualified pension, profit sharing and stock bonus plans by a certain date. That date is April 1 of the year following the later of the calendar year in which an employee:

  • Reaches age 70½, or
  • Retires from employment with the employer maintaining the plan under the “still working” exception.

Once they begin, RMDs must generally continue each year. The tax penalty for withdrawing less than the RMD amount is 50% of the portion that should have been withdrawn but wasn’t.

However, there’s an important exception to the still-working exception. If owner-employees own at least 5% of the company, they must begin taking RMDs from their 401(k)s beginning at 70½, regardless of their work status.

The still-working rule doesn’t apply to distributions from IRAs (including SEPs or SIMPLE IRAs). RMDs from these accounts must begin no later than April 1 of the year following the calendar year such individuals turn age 70½, even if they’re not retired.

The law and regulations don’t state how many hours an employee needs to work in order to postpone 401(k) RMDs. There’s no requirement that he or she work 40 hours a week for the exception to apply. However, the employee must be doing legitimate work and receiving W-2 wages.

For a customized plan

The RMD rules for qualified retirement plans (and IRAs) are complex. With careful planning, you can minimize your taxes and preserve more assets for your heirs. If you’re still working after age 70½, it may be beneficial to delay taking RMDs but there could also be disadvantages. Contact us to customize the optimal plan based on your individual retirement and estate planning goals.
© 2019


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Simplifying the accounting rules for convertible debt and equity


Distinguishing between liabilities and equity on a company’s balance sheet may seem straightforward. But difficulties arise when it comes to the terms of complex securities and financial contracts like redeemable equity instruments, equity-linked or indexed instruments, and convertible instruments.

The good news is that the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) is currently working on a project to improve how to determine the difference between liabilities and equity.

Need for change

Work on this project dates as far back as 1986, when distinguishing liabilities from equity was added to the FASB’s technical agenda. Since then, the board has issued various pieces of guidance to help resolve issues that have been raised. But the outcry for revisions to the liabilities vs. equity topic hasn’t waned.

In 2017, accounting professionals told the FASB that current guidance is “overly complex, internally inconsistent, path dependent, form based and is a cause for frequent financial statement restatements.”

Once again, the project is a top priority for the FASB. In 2019, deliberations will initially focus on two areas:

  1. Accounting for convertible instruments with embedded conversion features, and
  2. Determining whether instruments are indexed to an entity’s own stock.

A convertible instrument, typically a bond or a preferred stock, is an instrument that can be converted into a different security — often shares of the company’s common stock. For example, emerging and growing companies often use convertible debt as an alternative financing solution. It’s basically a loan obtained by a company from venture capital or angel investors whereby both parties agree to convert the debt into equity at a specific date.

Tentative plans

Convertible instruments create complex accounting issues and have become a major source of confusion and restatements. In February 2019, the FASB tentatively voted to:

  • Revise certain disclosures for convertible instruments, including adding disclosure objectives for convertible debt and for convertible preferred shares,
  • Centralize the guidance on convertible preferred shares in Accounting Standards Codification (ASC) Topic 505, Equity, and convertible debt in ASC Subtopic 470-20, Debt — Debt with Conversion and other Options, and
  • Improve the diluted earnings-per-share calculation and derivative scope exception.

Under the existing rules, there are currently five models to account for convertible debt, which the board plans to narrow down to one or two models. As a result, convertible debt would be recognized in the balance sheet as a single liability, measured at amortized cost. There would no longer be bifurcation, or separation, of the conversion feature and the debt host. Similarly, convertible preferred shares would be recognized in the balance sheet as a single equity element.

Stay tuned

Many start-ups and midsize businesses use convertible instruments to raise cash. But it’s easy for management to miss an aspect of an arrangement and then follow the wrong accounting model under today’s complex, inconsistent principles. And the complex accounting rules even may cause some businesses to avoid tapping into these financing alternatives.

Fortunately, the FASB is taking steps to simplify the financial reporting requirements — and we’re atop the latest developments. Contact us for more information.   
© 2019


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