Small businesses: Stay clear of a severe payroll tax penalty

payroll tax penaltyOne of the most laborious tasks for small businesses is managing payroll. But it’s critical that you not only withhold the right amount of taxes from employees’ paychecks but also that you pay them over to the federal government on time.

If you willfully fail to do so, you could personally be hit with the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty, also known as the 100% penalty. The penalty applies to the Social Security and income taxes required to be withheld by a business from its employees’ wages. Since the taxes are considered property of the government, the employer holds them in “trust” on the government’s behalf until they’re paid over.

The reason the penalty is sometimes called the “100% penalty” is because the person liable for the taxes (called the “responsible person”) can be personally penalized 100% of the taxes due. Accordingly, the amounts the IRS seeks when the penalty is applied are usually substantial, and the IRS is aggressive in enforcing it.

Responsible persons

The penalty can be imposed on any person “responsible” for the collection and payment of the taxes. This has been broadly defined to include a corporation’s officers, directors, and shareholders under a duty to collect and pay the tax, as well as a partnership’s partners or any employee of the business under such a duty. Even voluntary board members of tax-exempt organizations, who are generally exempt from responsibility, can be subject to this penalty under certain circumstances. Responsibility has even been extended in some cases to professional advisors.

According to the IRS, being a responsible person is a matter of status, duty, and authority. Anyone with the power to see that the taxes are paid may be responsible. There is often more than one responsible person in a business, but each is at risk for the entire penalty. Although taxpayers held liable may sue other responsible persons for their contributions, this is an action they must take entirely on their own after they pay the penalty. It isn’t part of the IRS collection process.

The net can be broadly cast. You may not be directly involved with the withholding process in your business. But let’s say you learn of a failure to pay over withheld taxes and you have the power to have them paid. Instead, you make payments to creditors and others. You have now become a responsible person.

How the IRS defines “willfulness”

For actions to be willful, they don’t have to include an overt intent to evade taxes. Simply bowing to business pressures and paying bills or obtaining supplies instead of paying over withheld taxes due to the government is willful behavior for these purposes. And just because you delegate responsibilities to someone else doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook.

In addition, the corporate veil won’t shield corporate owners from the 100% penalty. The liability protections that owners of corporations — and limited liability companies — typically have don’t apply to payroll tax debts.
If the IRS assesses the penalty, it can file a lien or take levy or seizure action against the personal assets of a responsible person.

Avoiding the penalty

You should never allow any failure to withhold taxes from employees, and no “borrowing” from withheld amounts should ever be allowed in your business — regardless of the circumstances. All funds withheld must be paid over on time.

If you aren’t already using a payroll service, consider hiring one. This can relieve you of the burden of withholding and paying the proper amounts, as well as handling the recordkeeping. Contact us for more information.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Putting together the succession planning and retirement planning puzzle

succession planning and retirement planning

Everyone needs to plan for retirement. But as a business owner, you face a distinctive challenge in that you must save for your golden years while also creating, updating and eventually executing a succession plan. This is no easy task, but you can put the puzzle pieces together by answering some fundamental questions:

When do I want to retire?

This may be the most important question regarding your succession plan, because it’s at this time that your successor will take over. Think about a date by which you’ll be ready to let go and will have the financial resources to support yourself for your postretirement life expectancy.

How much will I need to retire?

To maintain your current lifestyle, you’ll likely need a substantial percentage of your current annual income. You may initially receive an influx of cash from perhaps either the sale of your company or a payout from a buy-sell agreement.

But don’t forget to consider inflation. This adds another 2% to 4% per year to the equation. If, like many retirees, you decide to move to a warmer climate, you also need to take the cost of living in that state into consideration — especially if you’ll maintain two homes.

What are my sources of retirement income?

As mentioned, selling your business (if that’s what your succession plan calls for) will likely help at first. Think about whether you’d prefer a lump-sum payment to add to your retirement savings or receive installments.

Of course, many business owners don’t sell but pass along their company to family members or trusted employees. You might stay on as a paid consultant, which would provide some retirement income. And all of this would be in addition to whatever retirement accounts you’ve been contributing to, as well as Social Security.

Am I saving enough?

This is a question everyone must ask but, again, business owners have special considerations. Let’s say you’d been saving diligently for retirement, but economic or market difficulties have recently forced you to lower your salary or channel more of your own money into the company. This could affect your retirement date and, thus, your succession plan’s departure date.

Using a balance sheet, add up all your assets and debts. Heavy spending and an excessive debt load can significantly delay your retirement. In turn, this negatively affects your succession plan because it throws the future leadership of your company into doubt and confusion. As you get closer to retirement, integrate debt management and elimination into your personal financial approach so you can confidently set a departure date. We can help you identify all the different pieces related to succession planning and retirement planning — and assemble them all into a practical whole.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

A buy-sell agreement can provide the liquidity to cover estate taxes

buy-sell agreements

If you own an interest in a closely held business, it’s critical to have a well-designed, properly funded buy-sell agreement. Without one, an owner’s death can have a negative effect on the surviving owners.

If one of your co-owners dies, for example, you may be forced to go into business with his or her family or other heirs. And if you die, your family’s financial security may depend on your co-owners’ ability to continue operating the business successfully.

Buy-sell agreement and estate taxes

There’s also the question of estate taxes. With the federal gift and estate tax exemption currently at $11.4 million, estate taxes affect fewer people than they once did. But estate taxes can bring about a forced sale of the business if your estate is large enough and your family lacks liquid assets to satisfy the tax liability.

A buy-sell agreement requires (or permits) the company or the remaining owners to buy the interest of an owner who dies, becomes disabled, retires or otherwise leaves the business. It also establishes a valuation mechanism for setting the price and payment terms. In the case of death, the buyout typically is funded by life insurance, which provides a source of liquid funds to purchase the deceased owner’s shares and cover any estate taxes or other expenses.

3 options

Buy-sell agreements typically are structured as one of the following agreements:

  1. Redemption, which permits or requires the business as a whole to repurchase an owner’s interest,
  2. Cross-purchase, which permits or requires the remaining owners of the company to buy the interest, typically on a pro rata basis, or
  3. Hybrid, which combines the two preceding structures. A hybrid agreement, for example, might require a departing owner to first make a sale offer to the company and, if it declines, sell to the remaining individual owners.

Depending on the structure of your business and other factors, the type of agreement you choose may have significant income tax implications. They’ll differ based on whether your company is a flow-through entity or a C corporation. We can help you design a buy-sell agreement that’s right for your business.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Your succession plan may benefit from a separation of business and real estate

Your succession plan

Like most businesses, yours probably has a variety of physical assets, such as production equipment, office furnishings and a plethora of technological devices. But the largest physical asset in your portfolio may be your real estate holdings — that is, the building and the land it sits on.

Under such circumstances, many business owners choose to separate ownership of the real estate from the company itself. A typical purpose of this strategy is to shield these assets from claims by creditors if the business ever files for bankruptcy (assuming the property isn’t pledged as loan collateral). In addition, the property is better protected against claims that may arise if a customer is injured on the property and sues the business.

But there’s another reason to consider separating your business interests from your real estate holdings: to benefit your succession plan.

Ownership transition

A common and generally effective way to separate the ownership of real estate from a company is to form a distinct entity, such as a limited liability company (LLC) or a limited liability partnership (LLP), to hold legal title to the property. Your business will then rent the property from the entity in a tenant-landlord relationship.

Using this strategy can help you transition ownership of your company to one or more chosen successors, or to reward employees for strong performance. By holding real estate in a separate entity, you can sell shares in the company to the successors or employees without transferring ownership of the real estate.

In addition, retaining title to the property will allow you to collect rent from the new owners. Doing so can be a valuable source of cash flow during retirement.

You could also realize estate planning benefits. When real estate is held in a separate legal entity, you can gift business interests to your heirs without giving up interest in the property.

Complex strategy

The details involved in separating the title to your real estate from your business can be complex. Our firm can help you determine whether this strategy would suit your company and succession plan, including a close examination of the potential tax benefits or risks.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Targeting and converting your company’s sales prospects

converting your company’s sales prospects

Companies tend to spend considerable time and resources training and upskilling their sales staff on how to handle existing customers. And this is, no doubt, a critical task. But don’t overlook the vast pool of individuals or entities that want to buy from you but just don’t know it yet. We’re talking about prospects.

Identifying and winning over a steady flow of new buyers can safeguard your business against sudden sales drops or, better yet, push its profitability to new heights. Here are some ideas for better targeting and converting your company’s sales prospects:

Continually improve lead generation.

Does your marketing department help you generate leads by doing things such as creating customer profiles for your products or services? If not, it’s probably time to create a database of prospects who may benefit from your products or services. Customer relationship management software can be of great help. When salespeople have a clear picture of a likely buyer, they’ll be able to better focus their efforts.

Use qualifications to avoid wasted sales calls.

The most valuable nonrecurring asset that any company possesses is time. Effective salespeople spend their time with prospects who are the most likely to buy from them. Four aspects of a worthy prospect include having:

  • Clearly discernible and fulfillable needs,
  • A readily available decision maker,
  • Definitively assured creditworthiness, and
  • A timely desire to buy.

Apply these qualifications, and perhaps others that you develop, to any person or entity with whom you’re considering doing business. If a sale appears highly unlikely, move on.

Develop effective questions.

When talking with prospects, your sales staff must know what draws buyers to your company. Sales staffers who make great presentations but don’t ask effective questions to find out about prospects’ needs are doomed to mediocrity.

They say the most effective salespeople spend 20% of their time talking and 80% listening. Whether these percentages are completely accurate is hard to say, but after making their initial pitch, good salespeople use their talking time to ask intelligent, insightful questions based on solid research into the prospect. Otherwise, they listen.

Devise solutions.

It may seem next to impossible to solve the challenges of someone you’ve never met. But that’s the ultimate challenge of targeting and winning over prospects. Your sales staff needs the ability to know — going in — how your product or service can solve a prospect’s problem or help him, her or that organization accomplish a goal. Without a clear offer of a solution, what motivation does a prospect have to spend money?

Customers are important — and it would be foolish to suggest they’re not. But remember, at one time, every one of your customers was a prospect that you won over. You’ve got to keep that up. Contact us for help quantifying your sales process so you can get a better idea of how to improve it.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.