Is it a Business, or is it a Hobby?

How many of you out there make really good homemade hummus? I’m typing with one hand, while I raise the other. My wife thinks that it’s better than the pre-made store bought stuff, and that I should sell it to the public. For all my clients, no, I’m not quitting my day job (yet, haha!). Aside from figuring out a catchy name for it (JayTheCPA’s hummus doesn’t quite roll off the tongue), could I really make a go of this as a business, or is it really just a hobby?

If you’ve been doing some sort of activity that you love to do (baking cakes for friends, for example), is this something that you can deduct the expenses for, and reduce your taxes? I’ll give you a big resounding maybe!

IRS has various rules to determine whether an activity is a bona fide business, or just a hobby. If an activity is an actual business, for a sole proprietor the income and expenses are shown on Schedule C, as part of your individual income tax return, and if your expenses exceed your income, the resulting loss can offset other income items on your tax return. If the activity is a hobby, expenses can only be deducted to the extent of income, so if you have no income, you can’t deduct any expenses. If you do have income, the expenses are deducted as a miscellaneous itemized deduction, subject to a floor/deductible/”haircut” of 2% of your adjusted gross income. The bottom line is that if you’ve got a hobby, you’re probably not going to get much of a tax deduction for it, if at all.

So how do you know whether your activity is a business or a hobby? Here are a few of IRS’s factors for determining the answer:

1-how is the activity carried on – IRS will look at whether the activity is being conducted in a businesslike manner. Is there a separate bank account? Are books and records being kept?

2-what is the individual’s expertise – there should be extensive knowledge of the activity, potentially showing that advice has been sought from experts.

3-time and effort on the activity – if you have a full time job and pursue the activity an hour a week, it may indicate that this is not a serious business activity for you.

4-history of income or losses from the activity – while you may be able to get away with showing a loss on Schedule C for a year or two, showing losses year after year would indicate that there’s no real profit motive for the activity, in which case IRS will deem the activity a hobby, and disallow previous losses claimed.

IRS looks at a number of other factors when making a determination of whether an activity is a business or a hobby. At this point, my hummus making (and other culinary adventures) is strictly a hobby, so I’ll keep IRS out of what’s left of my hair, and will leave the expenses off my tax return. Before you start taking deductions for your hobby, contact your friendly neighborhood CPA for advice. Do you have any interesting tax stories regarding hobbies? Please share.

S Corporations and Reasonable Compensation

If you’re a small business owner, you may have heard the term “S corporation” or “S corp”. If you haven’t, then I’m guessing that you haven’t had a conversation with a CPA lately. Small businesses choose to make an “S” election to eliminate the self-employment tax on net income that a sole proprietor, single or multi-member LLC, or partnership would ordinarily be subject to. While there is this valuable tax benefit (13.3% for 2012) to being an S corporation for tax purposes, it’s extremely important to be aware that the savings on self-employment tax is not a giveaway by IRS, and if you’re not careful, it can cost you.

While it’s very tempting to just claim the net income from your S corp on your personal tax return, and only pay income tax (and no self-employment tax) on that income, IRS wants to see you pay yourself a “reasonable compensation” if you perform services for your S corp. If you’re the 100% shareholder and only person involved in your S corp, it would be difficult to claim that you provided no services for your own business, so you need to take a salary, the same way that you would pay a salary to an employee, since you’re in reality an employee of your own S corp. As such, you also become involved with filing quarterly payroll tax returns, making federal and state unemployment contributions, and issuing yourself a W-2 at the end of the year.

If you’re a small business that has made the S election, and are thinking “the heck with taking a reasonable compensation”, be advised that this is something that has seen a lot of noncompliance and abuse in recent past, and it’s on IRS’s radar. They’ve won many court cases on this subject, in spite of the fact that the Internal Revenue Code doesn’t explicitly define what “reasonable compensation” means, even though they’ve issued a fact sheet about compensation for S Corporation officers (just Google “FS-2008-25”).

Making an S election can be a source of significant tax savings, even with the additional costs of using a payroll service to issue paychecks to you and file payroll tax returns, and having a CPA prepare a separate tax return for the business (Form 1120S). It may be worth your while to invest a few dollars in having your tax professional run a side by side comparison of how much total tax you’d pay without having the S election vs. how much you’d pay with the election.

Please share this article with fellow business owners, and leave a comment on your own experience with being an S corp.

Miscellaneous Tax Stuff

Now that tax season’s over, it’s time to get back to other parts of life that got pushed to the side from January to April. One of those is writing articles for this blog. One thing I wrote about a number of months ago was ‘miscellaneous tax stuff’, and I think it’s time to do that again, so here goes…

Gift Taxes-did you know that if you make a gift of money or property to somebody else, you may need to file a gift tax return? You didn’t know that? Well, they say you learn something new every day, so you’re good to go! Check out a brief IRS YouTube video for more information, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPnR3U8Wk04

W-2 Reporting of Employer-Sponsored Health Coverage-beginning in 2012, employers must report the cost of group health coverage on employees’ W-2s (sent to employees by 1/31/13). IRS has more information at http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0%2c%2cid=257101%2c00.html

Start Planning Now for Next Year’s Tax Return-it’s never too soon for tax planning. Here are some things you can think of now
-did you have a large overpayment or balance due on your 2011 tax return? You should think about adjusting your withholdings, to have less/more tax withheld
-organize your recordkeeping, to make it easier at tax time. I think that part of the stress people feel when it comes to taxes has to do with searching for information they need. If you have a set place to put all tax related papers, you won’t have to remember where you put everything. And keep your prior year returns nearby, too.
-if you’re close to itemizing deductions, think about “bundling” your deductions into one year. This could include making an early mortgage payment or paying property tax before its due date.
-start thinking about (JayTheCPA) finding a tax professional (JayTheCPA) sooner, rather than later. Did you like my subliminal advertising?!

Name Changes After Marriage or Divorce-if your surname changed due to marriage or divorce, check out this IRS YouTube video for more information http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LibPOtwWAGc

Estimated Taxes-this is something that new business owners forget about, until it’s tax time, and they find out that not only do they owe a load of tax, but a penalty too, for not making quarterly estimated tax payments. Check out this IRS YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DM5XxKCATv0

I hope you found at least one piece of ‘stuff’ helpful to you. Please pass along this information to somebody else who may benefit, and let me know if you have any interesting tax stuff to share!

Mistakes Small Business Owners Make That Can Cost Them…DOH…The Sequel

O.K., I lied. Two weeks ago, when I did the first part of this discussion, I said that I’d post part 2 the following week. I’m a week late, but I’ve had other things on my mind, like tax season, and keeping my clients happy. I think I have a good excuse.

Anyhow, if you recall, a couple of weeks ago, I started talking about ways that small business owners can get themselves into hot water, and how to avoid it. The following are a few more things…

1-Filing tax returns late: When tax returns are filed late, penalties and interest will be computed on any tax due. This is applicable for payroll tax returns, sales tax, income tax, pretty much any tax that can be levied. Don’t be under the wrong idea that filing an extension for any tax return will keep you safe. An extension only gives you more time to file the return itself; it’s not an extension of time to pay any tax. The late filing penalty will cost you 4 ½% per month, late payment is ½% per month, and interest is 3%. Additionally, pass-through entities (S corporations, partnerships, LLCs), while paying no tax of their own, can be assessed a penalty of $195 for each late filed K-1.

“DOH!” Just take care of filing all of your tax returns on time, and you can avoid all of these charges. It’s so easy!

2- Penalties: While I’m discussing the above, let me tell you about other penalties that you can owe, when you deviate from the straight and narrow. To name a few-failure to deposit taxes, negligence, substantial understatement, accuracy related, failure to have JayTheCPA prepare your return…April Fool’s, just kidding about the last one!

“DOH!” The point I do want to make here is that you really don’t want to mess around with tax preparation, or fall behind in tax filings. The additional charges can add up really quickly, and all of them are completely avoidable, by taking care of things timely.

3-Home office deduction: Over the years I’ve had many clients tell me that they don’t want to claim a home office deduction for their business, because they think it’s a red flag for an audit. It’s not necessarily a red flag but the rules for claiming a home office deduction are specific, in particular the rule that the area in your house/apartment must be used “regularly and exclusively” for business. What this means is that if you’ve got a desk set up in the den, which your family also uses to watch TV, or you work at the dining room table, where the family also takes meals and entertains, that’s not regular and exclusive use.

“DOH!” If your work space fits into IRS’s requirements, not only will your home office deduction save you on income tax, but it’ll save you on self-employment tax too, which is currently about 13 percent. It’s a completely legitimate deduction that should be taken, when applicable.

4-Not using a CPA: It’s my blog, and I’m allowed just a little bit of self-promotion, right? Let me start this with a statement; I don’t know much about I.T., printing, banking, law, or medicine. Or lots of other things, for that matter. I’m not qualified to do any of those. How about you; what qualifies you to be a bookkeeper/accountant/CPA/tax preparer? Probably not much, which is why you should have a CPA as part of your professional team.

“DOH!” You can pay a CPA more later, to clean up the mess that you made with your taxes or your books, or you can pay less now to have a qualified bookkeeper help you with the books, and a CPA help you with the returns. You can try to use Google to research things yourself, but do you really have the time? Can you keep up to date with tax laws? Kids, don’t try this at home!

I hope you’ve found this and the prior installment of “DOH!” moments helpful. Please pass this information along to somebody who might benefit by these sage words of wisdom, so you don’t wind up looking like this little guy, after you’ve been spanked by IRS with penalties!

Mistakes Small Business Owners Make That Can Cost Them…DOH!

I was recently the presenter at a small business roundtable discussion that was geared toward small business owners. The facilitator asked me to discuss some mistakes that small business owners make that can cost them money, and to come up with a title. I gave it about a half second of thought, and realized that he already gave me the title, but took out ‘money’ and replaced it with the play on words (dough, and Homer Simpson’s cry when he does stupid things). My presentation lasted about an hour, and I won’t bore you that long, but hopefully some of these items will help you prevent your own “DOH!” moment.

1-Former W-2 employees becoming business owners/independent contractors: When you’re an employee, it’s so easy to just fill out your W-4, claim single-0, married-1, or whatever withholding exemptions, and the employer deducts the taxes for you and pays them in to IRS and the state. All you have to do is file your tax return and get your refund. This all changes when you become a small business owner or independent contractor. There’s nobody to withhold tax and pay it in for you; you need to do it yourself! If you’re an unincorporated entity (sole proprietor, partnership, single or multi-member LLC), you need to pay your taxes in to IRS and state on a quarterly basis, via estimated tax payments. Not only do you have to pay income tax, but on the federal level you also have to pay in self-employment tax.

“DOH!” You can be subject to underpayment penalties if you don’t pay enough tax in during the year. The penalty is 3% of the underpayment, and a late payment penalty and interest can be assessed if you’re not paid in full by April 15th. This “DOH” moment can be avoided with proper planning (with help from your favorite CPA, of course)

2- Employee vs. independent contractor: In this case I’m talking about the people you pay, to do work for you. If you pay somebody as an independent contractor, you give her/him a check for whatever the fee is, and at the end of the year, if you’ve paid that person $600 or more, you give her/him a 1099-MISC. When you pay somebody as an employee, you have to withhold taxes, pay them in to IRS and state, file quarterly payroll tax returns, issue W-2s, pay state and federal unemployment insurance and other benefits. What an expensive headache…makes you want to just pay somebody as an independent contractor, right?

“DOH!” IRS and the states have stepped up their scrutiny of the misclassification of employees as independent contractors, and are coming down hard. The determination of employee vs. independent contractor is ‘facts and circumstances’ driven, and you need to understand this, before potentially owing all sorts of penalties and taxes. This one can cost you BIG time.

3-Not making payroll tax deposits: Sometimes a business owner will have cash flow problems, and will skip making payroll tax deposits, which can be a significant amount of money.

“DOH!” Taxes withheld from employees are not the employer’s money, but are considered ‘trust funds’, and must be deposited on a timely basis. The penalty for failing to do this is 100% of the amount that was supposed to be remitted. What’s more, the “responsible person” for making the tax deposits (generally the business owner) can be held personally liable for any tax not paid. Don’t even think of not making payroll tax deposits.

There are a bunch of other “DOH!” moments that I want to discuss, and now that I’ve gotten into this, I think I’ll continue this next week. If you’re not embarrassed, please leave a comment about a less than bright decision you’ve made while running your business, and please forward this article to anybody you know who could use some good advice. Stay tuned for part 2 next week.

IRS Small Business Resources (yes, believe it!)

We’ve all been programmed to think that IRS is our enemy, and while I don’t necessarily believe that, I do think that anything coming from the IRS has to be treated with caution. Having said that, I can also say that IRS does actually provide some helpful information to the public. One of those things is their Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center. It’s a sort-of ‘one-stop shopping’ place for small business and self-employed information. Granted, it’s no substitute for trained professional assistance (hey, I need to preserve my job!), but it is a good place to look at, for information on all sorts of subjects that affect small businesses and the self-employed.

Some of the things covered in the website are
-Forms and publications
-Starting, operating, or closing a business
-Employment taxes
-Independent contractor or employee
-Videos

This, and much, much more! Check it all out at www.irs.gov/businesses/small/index.html

Let me know if I can help you navigate the maze of the ins and outs of operating a small business, or being self-employed. Kids, don’t try this at home, and don’t go it alone! Please pass a link to this article along to anybody you feel may benefit from it.

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