Tax planning involves conceiving of and implementing various strategies in order to minimize the amount of taxes paid for a given period. For a small business, minimizing the tax liability can provide more money for expenses, investment, or growth. In this way, tax planning can be a source of working capital. According to The Entrepreneur Magazine Small Business Advisor, two basic rules apply to tax planning. First, a small business should never incur additional expenses only to gain a tax deduction. While purchasing necessary equipment prior to the end of the tax year can be a valuable tax planning strategy, making unnecessary purchases is not recommended. Second, a small business should always attempt to defer taxes when possible. Deferring taxes enables the business to use that money interest-free, and sometimes even earn interest on it, until the next time taxes are due.
Experts recommend that entrepreneurs and small business owners conduct formal tax planning sessions in the middle of each tax year. This approach will give them time to apply their strategies to the current year as well as allow them to get a jump on the following year. It is important for small business owners to maintain a personal awareness of tax planning issues in order to save money. Even if they employ a professional bookkeeper or accountant, small business owners should keep careful tabs on their own tax preparation in order to take advantage of all possible opportunities for deductions and tax savings. "Whether or not you enlist the aid of an outsider, you should understand the basic provisions of the tax code," Albert B. Ellentuck wrote in the Laventhol and Horwath Small Business Tax Planning Guide. "Just as you would not turn over the management of your money to another person, you should not blindly allow someone else to take complete charge of your tax paying responsibilities." In addition, as Frederick W. Dailey wrote in his book Tax Savvy for Small Business, "Tax knowledge has powerful profit potential. Knowing what the tax law has to offer can give you a far better bottom line than your competitors who don't bother to learn."
GENERAL AREAS OF TAX PLANNING
There are several general areas of tax planning that apply to all sorts of small businesses. These areas include the choice of accounting and inventory-valuation methods, the timing of equipment purchases, the spreading of business income among family members, and the selection of tax-favored benefit plans and investments. There are also some areas of tax planning that are specific to certain business forms—i.e., sole proprietorships, partnerships, C corporations, and S corporations. Some of the general tax planning strategies are described below:
ACCOUNTING METHODS Accounting methods refer to the basic rules and guidelines under which businesses keep their financial records and prepare their financial reports. There are two main accounting methods used for record-keeping: the cash basis and the accrual basis. Small business owners must decide which method to use depending on the legal form of the business, its sales volume, whether it extends credit to customers, and the tax requirements set forth by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The choice of accounting method is an issue in tax planning, as it can affect the amount of taxes owed by a small business in a given year.
Accounting records prepared using the cash basis recognize income and expenses according to real-time cash flow. Income is recorded upon receipt of funds, rather than based upon when it is actually earned, and expenses are recorded as they are paid, rather than as they are actually incurred. Under this accounting method, therefore, it is possible to defer taxable income by delaying billing so that payment is not received in the current year. Likewise, it is possible to accelerate expenses by paying them as soon as the bills are received, in advance of the due date. The cash method is simpler than the accrual method, it provides a more accurate picture of cash flow, and income is not subject to taxation until the money is actually received.
In contrast, the accrual basis makes a greater effort to recognize income and expenses in the period to which they apply, regardless of whether or not money has changed hands. Under this system, revenue is recorded when it is earned, rather than when payment is received, and expenses recorded when they are incurred, rather than when payment is made. The main advantage of the accrual method is that it provides a more accurate picture of how a business is performing over the long-term than the cash method. The main disadvantages are that it is more complex than the cash basis, and that income taxes may be owed on revenue before payment is actually received. However, the accrual basis may yield favorable tax results for companies that have few receivables and large current liabilities.
Under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), the accrual basis of accounting is required for all businesses that handle inventory, from small retailers to large manufacturers. It is also required for corporations and partnerships that have gross sales over $5 million per year, though there are exceptions for farming businesses and qualified personal service corporations—such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and consultants. Other businesses generally can decide which accounting method to use based on the relative tax savings it provides.
INVENTORY VALUATION METHODS The method a small business chooses for inventory valuation can also lead to substantial tax savings. Inventory valuation is important because businesses are required to reduce the amount they deduct for inventory purchases over the course of a year by the amount remaining in inventory at the end of the year. For example, a business that purchased $10,000 in inventory during the year but had $6,000 remaining in inventory at the end of the year could only count $4,000 as an expense for inventory purchases, even though the actual cash outlay was much larger. Valuing the remaining inventory differently could increase the amount deducted from income and thus reduce the amount of tax owed by the business.
The tax law provides two possible methods for inventory valuation: the first-in, first-out method (FIFO); and the last-in, first-out method (LIFO). As the names suggest, these inventory methods differ in the assumption they make about the way items are sold from inventory. FIFO assumes that the items purchased the earliest are the first to be removed from inventory, while LIFO assumes that the items purchased most recently are the first to be removed from inventory. In this way, FIFO values the remaining inventory at the most current cost, while LIFO values the remaining inventory at the earliest cost paid that year.
LIFO is generally the preferred inventory valuation method during times of rising costs. It places a lower value on the remaining inventory and a higher value on the cost of goods sold, thus reducing income and taxes. On the other hand, FIFO is generally preferred during periods of deflation or in industries where inventory can tend to lose its value rapidly, such as high technology. Companies are allowed to file Form 970 and switch from FIFO to LIFO at any time to take advantage of tax savings. However, they must then either wait ten years or get permission from the IRS to switch back to FIFO.
EQUIPMENT PURCHASES Under Section 179 of the Internal Revenue Code, businesses are allowed to deduct a total of $18,000 in equipment purchases during the year in which the purchases are made. Any purchases above this amount must be depreciated over several future tax periods. It is often advantageous for small businesses to use this tax incentive to increase their deductions for business expenses, thus reducing their taxable income and their tax liability. Necessary equipment purchases up to the limit can be timed at year end and still be fully deductible for the year. This tax incentive also applies to personal property put into service for business use, with the exception of automobiles and real estate.
WAGES PAID TO FAMILY MEMBERS Self-employed persons can also reduce their tax burden by paying wages to a spouse or to dependent children. Wages paid to children under the age of 18 are not subject to FICA (Social Security and Medicare) taxes. Under normal circumstances, employers are required to withhold 7.65 percent of the first $62,700 of an employee's income for FICA taxes. Employers are also required to match the 7.65 percent contributed by every employee, so that the total FICA contribution is 15.3 percent. Self-employed persons are required to pay both the employer and employee portions of the FICA tax.
But the FICA taxes are waived when the employee is a dependent child of the small business owner, saving the child and the parent 7.65 percent each. In addition, the child's wages are still considered a tax deductible business expense for the parent—thus reducing the parent's taxable income. Although the child must pay normal income taxes on the wages he or she receives, it is likely to be at a lower tax rate than the parent pays. Some business owners are able to further reduce their tax burden by paying wages to their spouse. If these wages bring the business owner's net income below $62,700—the threshold for FICA taxes—then they may reduce the self-employment tax owed by business owner. It is important to note, however, that the child or spouse must actually work for the business and that the wages must be reasonable for the work performed.
BENEFITS PLANS AND INVESTMENTS Tax planning also applies to various types of employee benefits that can provide a business with tax deductions, such as contributions to life insurance, health insurance, or retirement plans. As an added bonus, many such benefit programs are not considered taxable income for employees. Finally, tax planning applies to various types of investments that can shift tax liability to future periods, such as treasury bills, bank certificates, savings bonds, and deferred annuities. Companies can avoid paying taxes during the current period for income that is reinvested in such tax-deferred instruments.
TAX PLANNING FOR DIFFERENT BUSINESS FORMS
"The first step in tax planning—for small business owners and professionals, at least—is to select the right form of organization for your enterprise," according to Albert B. Ellentuck in the Laventhol and Horwath Small Business TaxPlanning Guide. "You'll end up paying radically different amounts of income tax depending on the form you select. And your odds of being audited by the IRS will change, too." Many aspects of tax planning are specific to certain business forms; some of these are discussed below:
SOLE PROPRIETORSHIPS AND PARTNERSHIPS Tax planning for sole proprietorships and partnerships is in many ways similar to tax planning for individuals. This is because the owners of businesses organized as sole proprietors and partnerships pay personal income tax rather than business income tax. These small business owners file an informational return for their business with the IRS, and then report any income taken from the business for personal use on their own personal tax return. No special taxes are imposed except for the self-employment tax (SECA), which requires all self-employed persons to pay both the employer and employee portions of the FICA tax, for a total of 15.3 percent.
Since they do not receive an ordinary salary, the owners of sole proprietorships and partnerships are not required to withhold income taxes for themselves. Instead, they are required to estimate their total tax liability and remit it to the IRS in quarterly installments, using Form 1040 ES. It is important that the amount of tax paid in quarterly installments equal either the total amount owed during the previous year or 90 percent of their total current tax liability. Otherwise, the IRS may charge interest and impose a stiff penalty for underpayment of estimated taxes.
Since the IRS calculates the amount owed quarterly, a large lump-sum payment in the fourth quarter will not enable a taxpayer to escape penalties. On the other hand, a significant increase in withholding in the fourth quarter may help, because tax that is withheld by an employer is considered to be paid evenly throughout the year no matter when it was withheld. This leads to a possible tax planning strategy for a self-employed person who falls behind in his or her estimated tax payments. By having an employed spouse increase his or her withholding, the self-employed person can make up for the deficiency and avoid a penalty. The IRS has also been known to waive underpayment penalties for people in special circumstances. For example, they might waive the penalty for newly self-employed taxpayers who underpay their income taxes because they are making estimated tax payments for the first time.
Another possible tax planning strategy applies to partnerships that anticipate a loss. At the end of each tax year, partnerships file the informational Form 1065 (Partnership Statement of Income) with the IRS, and then report the amount of income that accrued to each partner on Schedule K1. This income can be divided in any number of ways, depending on the nature of the partnership agreement. In this way, it is possible to pass all of a partnership's early losses to one partner in order to maximize his or her tax advantages.
C CORPORATIONS Tax planning for C corporations is very different than that for sole proprietorships and partnerships. This is because profits earned by C corporations accrue to the corporation rather than to the individual owners, or shareholders. A corporation is a separate, taxable entity under the law, and different corporate tax rates apply based on the amount of net income received. As of 1997, the corporate tax rates were 15 percent on income up to $50,000, 25 percent on income between $50,000 and $75,000, 34 percent on income between $75,000 and $100,000, 39 percent on income between $100,000 and $335,000, and 34 percent on income between $335,000 and $10 million. Personal service corporations, like medical and law practices, pay a flat rate of 35 percent. In addition to the basic corporate tax, corporations may be subject to several special taxes.
Corporations must prepare an annual corporate tax return on either a calendar-year basis (the tax year ends December 31, and taxes must be filed by March 15) or a fiscal-year basis (the tax year ends whenever the officers determine). Most Subchapter S corporations, as well as C corporations that derive most of their income from the personal services of shareholders, are required to use the calendar-year basis for tax purposes. Most other corporations can choose whichever basis provides them with the most tax benefits. Using a fiscal-year basis to stagger the corporate tax year and the personal one can provide several advantages. For example, many corporations choose to end their fiscal year on January 31 and give their shareholder/employees bonuses at that time. The bonuses are still tax deductible for the corporation, while the individual shareholders enjoy use of that money without owing taxes on it until April 15 of the following year.
Both the owners and employees of C corporations receive salaries for their work, and the corporation must withhold taxes on the wages paid. All such salaries are tax deductible for the corporations, as are fringe benefits supplied to employees. Many smaller corporations can arrange to pay out all corporate income in salaries and benefits, leaving no income subject to the corporate income tax. Of course, the individual shareholder/employees are required to pay personal income taxes. Still, corporations can use tax planning strategies to defer or accrue income between the corporation and individuals in order to pay taxes in the lowest possible tax bracket. The one major disadvantage to corporate taxation is that corporate income is subject to corporate taxes, and then income distributions to shareholders in the form of dividends are also taxable for the shareholders. This situation is known as "double taxation."
S CORPORATIONS Subchapter S corporations avoid the problem of double taxation by passing their earnings (or losses) through directly to shareholders, without having to pay dividends. Experts note that it is often preferable for tax planning purposes to begin a new business as an S corporation rather than a C corporation. Many businesses show a loss for a year or more when they first begin operations. At the same time, individual owners often cash out investments and sell assets in order to accumulate the funds needed to start the business. The owners would have to pay tax on this income unless the corporate losses were passed through to offset it.
Another tax planning strategy available to shareholder/employees of S corporations involves keeping FICA taxes low by setting modest salaries for themselves, below the Social Security base. S corporation shareholder/employees are only required to pay FICA taxes on the income that they receive as salaries, not on income that they receive as dividends or on earnings that are retained in the corporation. It is important to note, however, that unreasonably low salaries may be challenged by the IRS.