11 tax breaks to start and grow a small business

November 10, 2014 | By: Robert A. Green, CPA

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Among the most popular “American dreams” is starting your own business. Entrepreneurship is the bedrock of America’s thriving economy and Congress continues to favor small business with tax breaks. Uncle Sam is patient for income taxes, allowing: upfront and accelerated expensing; paying business taxes on individual tax returns where other business or investment losses and expenses can be applied; lower tax rates (graduated rates) for lower income; and averaging business income over several years with net operating losses (NOLs). Plus America has voluntary tax compliance. America’s tax system is the envy of the world, and it’s the best place to start a business.

Interested in starting your own business? Find a niche in the marketplace in which you can compete with an edge. It’s possible to open a virtual business within weeks. The incredible advances in ecommerce have made it possible to launch a website with an online store and outsource fulfillment and logistics to other entrepreneurs. Borrow money at record low interest rates and get a full tax deduction for interest expense.

GreenTraderTax has been servicing investors, traders and investment managers since 1983. Business traders and investment managers are classic small businesses. Business traders have trading gains and losses rather than revenues. Investment managers have advisory fee revenues. Both have operating expenses and no inventory of products. They share many of the same tax, accounting, entity and retirement plan strategies and solutions.

Small business also generates self-employment income (SEI) or earned income, which in many cases triggers FICA and Medicare taxes — payroll taxes on wages or self-employment (SE) taxes on sole proprietor net income or Schedule K-1 ordinary income from partnerships. Traders do not have SEI on trading gains, with the exception of a futures trader who is a full-scale member of a futures exchange. S-Corps also do not pass through SEI, so the IRS requires “reasonable compensation” for officer/owners of approximately 50% of net income.

If you’re thinking of starting up your own small business, consider these 11 important tax breaks:

1.  Business expenses and NOLs

If you want to see what a country values most, study its tax code. In America, business enjoys the best tax breaks compared to investors and employees. Business expenses are deductible from gross income with few limitations and business losses comprise NOLs, which can be carried back two years and/or forward 20 years. You can choose between the cash or accrual method of accounting. Conversely, investment expenses and unreimbursed employee business expenses (Form 2106) are limited as miscellaneous itemized deductions on Schedule A.

Costs to develop, build or acquire a business or asset are capitalized as an asset. A taxpayer must check to see how the IRS allows expensing of that asset — depreciation or amortization —generally over a prescribed useful life. Obviously, the sooner you can write off an asset via a tax deduction, the more your net income will be reduced.

2.  First-year expensing (100% depreciation) and bonus depreciation

Section 179 “Election to expense certain depreciable business assets” allows 100% depreciation in the acquisition year on qualified Section 179 property. The 2013 limit was $500,000, but “tax extender” legislation lapsed at the end of 2013, so the old limit of $25,000 returns for 2014 with an adjustment for inflation. Hopefully, the 2014 and 2015 Congress will renew a much higher limit for Section 179 retroactively to Jan. 1, 2014. (Postscript on 12/4: —The House just renewed all tax extenders for 2014 and the Senate and White House will probably agree.) Learn more about the Section 179 Deduction on the IRS site, including What Property Qualifies?

3.  Start-up expenditures

Section 195 “start-up expenditures” include costs for “investigating and inquiring” about a new business; they do not include acquisition costs, fixed assets (equipment) or intangible assets (software). Sometimes a larger business may try to disguise acquisition costs as start-up costs and the IRS says no. However, many small business start-ups do have costs for investigating and inquiring about a new business. Business traders take classes before trading and that squeezes into start-up costs. Section 195 rules: file an internal “expense election” to deduct $5,000, plus deduct the rest over 180 months beginning with the month in which the business begins. Tip: start your business activity ASAP so expenses after commencement are unlimited operating expenses. We think capitalizing start-up costs six months from inception is reasonable.

4.  Organizational expenditures

Section 248 “organizational expenditures” are similar to start-up expenditures with an election for a $5,000 deduction and the rest over 180 months beginning with the first month. Organizational expenditures are for forming your business entity with attorneys, accountants and incorporation services. When an attorney provides various services to your company, it’s important to get an itemized breakdown of the fees between organization expenditures, operations, acquisition and personal.

5.  Converting personal expenses to business use

The majority of taxpayer individuals are employees receiving W-2s. Employees don’t have deductions from gross income or adjusted gross income (AGI). They are stuck with restricted itemized deductions for state and property taxes, mortgage and investment interest, charitable contributions and miscellaneous itemized deductions (investment expenses, tax compliance expenses and unreimbursed employee business expenses). Employees get few tax breaks after wasting deductions to thresholds, AMT preferences, the Pease limitation and state restrictions. It’s the opposite for small business: They get deductions from gross income (business and home-office expenses) and adjusted gross income (retirement and health insurance premiums).

Many small business people have an office in their home and they coop one of the family automobiles for business use too. They arrange vacations that can also accomplish some business goals like attending a trade show or convention. They socialize with other entrepreneurs who can help them succeed in their business. They start to blur the lines between business and personal and the end result is a reduction of personal non-deductible expenses and an increase of business expenses. Be sure to follow IRS rules on compliance, documentation, autos, travel and entertainment. It’s wonderful to convert personal-use assets and expenses into business-use assets, unlocking business deduction treatment. Without spending additional money, you convert limited itemized deductions or non-deduction of personal expenses into business tax deductions. Tip: Use GTT Tracker to track expenses and comply with IRS rules for documentation on a contemporaneous basis.

6.  Home-office deductions

The home-office deduction is one of the most powerful deductions for business owners. Since the IRS liberalized home office rules in 1999, taking the deduction is no longer a red flag. You don’t have to meet clients in your home, but you can only deduct home office expenses against business income. The amount not deducted is carried over to the subsequent tax year. Determine the home office percentage by either the square footage method or room’s method, and then deduct that percentage of all home expenses including depreciation or rent. Tip: Most taxpayers would love to write off a big chunk of their home expenses, so make sure you meet the exclusive use requirement to enjoy this juicy tax break.

7.  Retirement plan deductions

Uncle Sam gives generous tax breaks to those saving for retirement. All income growth in retirement plans is tax free until ordinary income distributions are taken in retirement. Set up officer compensation in your S-Corp or C-Corp or guaranteed payments in a partnership, or look to sole proprietorship net income. Establish a high-deductible retirement plan.

We generally recommend an employer 401(k) plan for corporations and partnerships and an Individual 401(k) plan for sole proprietors. The 401(k) elective deferral ($17,500 for 2014 and $18,000 for 2015) is 100% deductible, plus it’s paired with a 25% employer profit-sharing plan allowing a total contribution of up to $52,000 for 2014 and $53,000 for 2015. There’s also a catch-up contribution ($5,500 for 2014 and $6,000 for 2015) for taxpayers age 50 and over. An Individual 401(k) plan has a 20% profit sharing plan, which is not as generous as the employer plan.

High income businesses should consider a defined benefit (DB) plan where much higher amounts can be contributed per year (up to $210,000 for 2014). DB plans require actuaries and attorneys and it takes time to set up. Consider different options for your retirement plan contributions, and whether you have sufficient cash flow to maximize this tax deduction.

8.  Health insurance deductions

Sole proprietors and partners in partnerships have SEI which unlocks a 100% AGI deduction for health insurance premiums on their individual tax return. S-Corps are tricky: Add the individual health insurance of the officer to officer’s compensation and take a 100% AGI deduction for health insurance premiums on the owner’s individual tax return.

For high-deductible ACA-compliant health insurance plans, consider a Health Savings Account plan. If you have significant unreimbursed health expenses, consider a medical reimburse plan. Only a C-Corp can have an MRP, not a partnership or S-Corp for more than 2% owners and attribution rules apply to spouses. If you have a C-Corp, consider other types of fringe benefit plans, too.

9.  Hire family members

Shift income to children over the age of the kiddie tax rules. Hire a spouse to do the elective deferral for your spouse on an employer 401(k) plan.

10.  Active Investors

If you join a small business as an active investor — providing capital and labor — you can navigate around the onerous Section 469 passive-activity loss rules by meeting the material participation standards. Although material participation is similar to “trader tax status” requiring “regular, continuous and substantial” work, there are important differences. Material participation standards provide bright-line tests, whereas trader tax status looks to case law instead. The material participation rules are complex; read them closely and consult an expert afterward. (Read more about our creation of the “Active Investor” tax strategy on our blog Private-Equity Active Investor Tax Breaks.)

Passive investors may only deduct passive activity losses – passed through on Schedule K-1s – against passive activity income. They may not take a net loss in a given tax year, unless they sell the investment fully realizing the loss. Otherwise, they have suspended tax losses. Passive activity net income from pass-through entities is also subject to Obamacare 3.8% Medicare surtax on unearned income (Net Investment Tax, NIT bucket 2). Active investor owners don’t have net investment income for NIT.

11.  Ecommerce/virtual business in a tax-free state

Many taxpayers living in a high-tax state would like to operate their business from a tax-free state to avoid paying state taxes. If you operate a pass-through entity, it doesn’t make any sense since the income is passed to your individual state tax return anyway. To claim you do business in a foreign state rather than your resident state, you shouldn’t have employees, assets and sales in your resident state (known as “nexus” rules). Traders live, work and trade in their home state, so claiming an out-of-state business wouldn’t be feasible, and they use pass-through entities anyway. But it’s different for an ecommerce/virtual business set up in cyberspace.

One idea is to form a C-Corp in Delaware and operate an ecommerce/virtual business that is not landed with sales, employees, inventory or assets in your high-tax resident state. Arrange for the corporation to pay you fees as an agent (not employee). Those working in the corporation as independent contractors — along with the servers — must be located out of your home state.

Enjoy lower corporate tax rates of up to 15% on the first $50,000 of income and 25% on the next $25,000 of income. (The rate is 34% for $75,000 and up.) Avoid state corporate tax and individual tax for many years. After you accumulate large retained earnings, pay a qualifying dividend taxed at lower capital gains taxes up to 20% (federal plus state).

Be your own boss
Most Americans prefer the “security” of a job over the perceived risks of starting and owning your own small business. Putting in a week’s work and get a weekly paycheck seems safer than working hard at a new small business and perhaps losing money.

But many of today’s jobs are not your grandfather’s jobs which often provided a lifetime of pension security. Today’s jobs are more prone to disappear in a flash with outsourcing, mergers, reorganizations, downsizing, productivity improvements (machines taking over), company or product obsolescence and disruptive technologies. Corporate America has grown harsher in its never-ending pursuit of productivity and profit often at the expense of the people. To save a buck, established businesses boot out aging employees just as they reach the pinnacle of individual success and compensation. Starting your own small business is not just a dream — it’s good business.

When I left Ernst & Whiney (now big-four accounting firm Ernst & Young) in 1983 to start Green & Company CPAs, I felt more secure with five founding clients than just one employer. Losing one employer leaves you stranded, but losing one client may not be a problem at all. Entrepreneurs aren’t risk takers; they are risk avoiders. (Read my blog article Traders should think of themselves as entrepreneurs. Some may want to diversify by operating more than one business.)

Bottom line
Green & Company and Green NFH helped thousands of traders and others launch new businesses, and we are ready to help you too. We have the expertise you need to assess new business opportunities, structure the business with the right entity and employee-benefit plans, reap small business tax breaks and grow your business with success. What’s your small business American Dream?

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