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Building Business Credibility by Volunteering

Giving back to the community feels great. Americans have a strong tradition of giving back by volunteering for nonprofit organizations. Nationally, about 30% of us volunteer for a nonprofit. My community, the Washington, DC/Arlington/Alexandria area, tops those averages with 38.3% of residents giving over 148 million hours of service worth an estimated $3.5 billion.

Volunteering not only feels great, it can also build your business credibility. Which would your potential customers choose – a business that is not engaged in the community or your business, which is visibly giving back by sponsoring nonprofit events and allowing employees time to volunteer? The choice is obvious. Customers will choose your business every time because they already feel good about you.

Makes sense, but volunteering is an investment of time and money that needs to fit into the rest of your business. Think about these three ways that businesses can build their credibility by volunteering to see if it fits into your business:

  1. Visibility

Sponsoring a nonprofit event or connecting your team with on-site or virtual volunteer projects is one way to get the name of your business in front of more potential customers. Event sponsorship and volunteering are not free, but if you’re paying to get your business name out there, it may as well be linked with a worthy cause. 

  1. Credibility

When you are doing good, people will assume that you are good, or at least dependable and credible. Establishing your credibility as an honorable and trusted business through volunteering will make potential customers look at your business first when making a purchasing decision. 

  1. Employee Enrichment

More than ever before, employees want a job where they can feel good about what they are doing and contribute to a better future. While workers can certainly volunteer on their own time, businesses that provide opportunities to volunteer as a team increase employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention.

Customers prefer to give their money to businesses like yours, which are visibly giving back to their community. They already feel good about you. Volunteering is a money and time investment in your business that you need to carefully assess. Thinking through the ways you can build your business credibility will increase the likelihood that customers will choose your business over one that is not visibly giving back.

Cyber Risk and Working from Home

Many people are still working from home. Some offices offer a hybrid work option, meaning that even more people are connecting to their employer’s systems remotely. But system security features that are in place at the office don’t always extend to workers’ homes. No small wonder that cyber risk is higher than ever before. 

Hackers know that remote workers often don’t have the same security set-up at home as they do at the office. But even when strong security protocols are in place, hackers can get in and data breaches happen. Why? Because human action has long been reported as one of the highest cyber risks. Temptation to fall for click bait – and trouble – seems to be even higher for people working at home in their jammies.

Cyber risk when working from home can leave employer’s systems vulnerable to hacks and malware. Employers can reduce cyber risk by providing remote support in these four IT control areas:

  1. Firewalls and Anti-Virus Software

Home workers should be required to install a firewall and anti-virus software. Firewalls protect against outside attacks and can be configured to block data from suspicious locations and allow relevant and necessary data through. Anti-virus software scans computer files and memory for patterns that may indicate the presence of malicious software.

  1. Program and System Updates

Home workers should download and install all program and system updates. Skipping updates and patches creates vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers and scammers. Workers should set up updates to be pushed automatically to their home computers and other devices to ensure they stay up-to-date.

  1. Passwords and Two-Factor Authentication

Home workers must use passwords for all system access and should be encouraged to use two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication means the user must enter username and password plus another step, such as entering a security code sent via text to a mobile phone. Passwords used at home should follow the same strength protocols as those used at the office.

  1. Phishing Emails

Home workers should be trained never to open an email from a suspicious source, click on a link in a suspicious email or open an attachment without scanning it first. Otherwise, your worker could be a victim of a phishing attack and your data could be compromised. Workers should not click on links in pop-up windows or follow links that offer anti-spyware software.

More working from home equals increased cyber risk because basic IT controls at the office don’t automatically extend to home, leaving systems vulnerable. Employers must train and support their home workers about these four essential IT control areas to reduce cyber fraud and protect business systems and data. Hackers are looking for workers at home in their jammies to tempt with click bait – don’t let that be you or your workers.

Filing Taxes When a Loved One Dies

That old joke about the two certainties of life – death and taxes – takes on a new meaning when a loved one dies and it’s tax filing time. Losing a loved one is stressful enough. Figuring out that loved one’s tax filing increases the stress for their surviving spouse or representative who is responsible for the final tax return.

Here are four things to know about filing a loved one’s final return:

  1. Filing Status and Due Date
  • The IRS considers someone married for the entire year in which their spouse died, as long as they do not remarry during that year.
  • A surviving spouse may use filing status of married filing jointly or married filing separately in the year of death. Surviving spouses with dependent children may be able to file as a Qualifying Widow(er) for two years after their spouse’s death.
  • The final return is due by the regular April tax date unless the surviving spouse or representative requests an extension to file.
  1. Filing the Final Return
  • On the final tax return, the surviving spouse or representative will note that the person has died to notify the IRS of the death.
  • The surviving spouse or representative should follow efile directions provided by the tax software. 
  • The filer should write the word deceased, the deceased person’s name, and the date of death across the top a paper return. The surviving spouse or representative must sign the return for the deceased taxpayer. The surviving spouse must also sign a joint return.
  • If there’s no appointed representative and no surviving spouse, the person in charge of the deceased person’s property must file and sign the return as “personal representative.”
  1. Documents to Include
  • Court-appointed representatives should attach a copy of the court document showing their appointment. A copy of the death certificate or other proof of death is not needed.
  • Representatives who aren’t court-appointed and are not the surviving spouse must include IRS Form 1310, Statement of Person Claiming Refund Due a Deceased Person to claim any refund.
  1. Paying Taxes Due
  • If tax is due, the filer should submit payment with the return or visit the payments page of IRS.gov for other payment options. 
  • Amounts due that cannot be paid immediately may qualify for a payment plan or installment agreement.

It’s stressful to learn about taxes while you are grieving. Being aware of these four tax-related topics after your loved one dies will help reduce your stress at an exceedingly challenging time. The IRS has more stress-reducing details at https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/deceased-taxpayers-filing-the-final-returns-of-a-deceased-taxpayer.

IRS Expands Voice Bot Options for Faster Service

If you’ve tried to call the IRS, you know that “fast service” is not what you are likely to experience. News articles and feeds are full of nightmare anecdotes of being on hold with the IRS, often being cut off before getting through to a real person. Even the Taxpayer Advocate doesn’t have much good to say about IRS phone response rates. They recently reported that only one out of ten calls make it to an agent.

The IRS is under pressure from you and the Taxpayer Advocate to do something about these abysmal response rates. Increased staffing isn’t a viable option, given the tight U.S. labor market and the average age of IRS employees – forty-five percent of IRS workers are within a few years of retirement. So, they are expanding the use of technology, including voice bot options. 

The IRS started using voice bots on many of its toll-free lines in January, enabling taxpayers with simple payment or notice questions to get what they need quickly and avoid waiting. Last week, the Internal Revenue Service announced expanded voice bot options to help eligible taxpayers easily set up or modify a payment plan while avoiding a long wait on hold. 

Voice bots run on software powered by artificial intelligence, which enables a caller to navigate an interactive voice response. Eligible taxpayers who call the Automated Collection System (ACS) and Accounts Management toll-free lines can authenticate or verify their identities through a personal identification number (PIN) creation process. Setting up a PIN is easy using your most recent IRS bill and some basic personal information to complete the process.

Additional voice bot service enhancements will be offered in 2022 to allow authenticated taxpayers with established or newly created PINs to get account and return transcripts, payment histories, and current balances owed. Voice bots can help people who call the Economic Impact Payment (EIP) toll-free line with answers to frequently asked questions. The IRS also added voice bots for the Advance Child Tax Credit toll-free line in February to provide similar assistance to callers who need help reconciling the credits on their 2021 tax return.

Want answers from the IRS with less wait time? Check out more details about your eligibility for IRS expanded voice bot options to avoid long wait times on hold. Live IRS agents are terrifically helpful and nice, but there are fewer of them to serve taxpayers. That makes a voice bot sound like a great option.

IRS Adjusts 2022 Standard Mileage Rates

Gas prices have spiked dramatically since late in 2021, when the IRS announced the standard mileage rates for 2022. The standard rate per mile is determined each year by the IRS based on data about the cost of operating and maintaining a vehicle. Businesses depend on the IRS mileage rate guidelines for deducting vehicle expenses and for reimbursing employees for their personal vehicle use. Individuals may also use the IRS rates to calculate the deductible portion of using their vehicle for medical or moving transportation purposes.

The IRS follows the news just like you do. So, in response to the jump in gas prices, the IRS decided to increase the 2022 standard mileage rates mid-year. Starting July 1, the adjusted 2022 standard mileage rates are:

  • 62.5 cents per mile driven for business use, up 4 cents from the January to June 2022 rate
  • 22 cents per mile driven for medical or moving purposes, up 4 cents from the January to June 2022 rate

The IRS mileage rate changes are optional. However, it makes no sense to use the lower rates for business expense deductions. Businesses who do not raise the rate for employee reimbursements will probably have some very unhappy workers to contend with. 

The 14 cents per mile rate for using a vehicle for charitable purposes stays the same. The charitable rate is set by statute, so it doesn’t change. Another thing hasn’t changed – whether you deduct the standard rate or actual expenses, you must track your miles driven during the year. Most people base their mileage deduction on the standard rate because it’s easier and often results in a larger deduction amount. 

Using the standard mileage rate can really add up to a substantial tax deduction. Remember that you always have the option of calculating the actual costs of using your vehicle and deducting the higher of the two options. No matter which of the two expense methods you choose, you must track your overall mileage driven during the year, and track the miles by category (e.g., business and personal).

Taking vehicle deductions for business, charitable, or medical purposes involves a lot of tracking, but the effort can be worth it. You can use mileage tracking apps to help. Once you get your tracking system down, you’ll see that those mileage deductions can add up and reduce the bottom line on your taxes. And, starting July 1, 2022, those mileage deductions will add up even more quickly.

IRS “Dirty Dozen” Top Tax Scams for 2022

The IRS works hard every year to communicate new or prevalent illegal schemes perpetrated by scammers against millions of taxpayers. Last week, the IRS announced its “Dirty Dozen” Top Tax Scams for 2022 with a warning about four financial arrangements that tax authorities have found to be abusive. The IRS urges taxpayers to think twice before putting their money into transactions that could be aggressively promoted scams that are on the IRS’ law enforcement radar screen.

The four potential-scam financial arrangements sound legit; many scams do because they are a twisted version of true scenarios. These transactions are complicated and sophisticated, and they are promoted by slick-sounding “financial advisors”. So, how do you identify “Dirty Dozen” scam transactions that the IRS is warning taxpayers about? Here are some clues:

  1. Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT) Used to Eliminate Taxable Gain

This transaction transfers appreciated property to a CRAT and taxpayers improperly claim the transfer of the appreciated assets. This action gives those assets a step-up in basis to fair market value as if they had been sold to the trust. The CRAT then sells the property but does not recognize a gain due to the claimed step-up in basis. The CRAT then uses the proceeds to purchase a single premium immediate annuity for which the beneficiary misapplies the tax rules by reporting only a small portion of the annuity income.

  1. Foreign Pension Arrangements Misusing Tax Treaty

U.S. citizens or residents make contributions to certain foreign individual retirement arrangements in a foreign country with a tax treaty to avoid U.S. tax. The individual typically lacks a local connection to the country, and local law allows contributions in a form other than cash or does not limit the amount of contributions. By asserting the foreign arrangement is a “pension fund” for U.S. tax treaty purposes, the U.S. taxpayer improperly claims a tax exemption from U.S. income tax.

  1. Puerto Rican and Other Foreign Captive Insurance 

In these transactions, U.S owners of closely held entities participate in a purported insurance arrangement with a Puerto Rican or other foreign corporation with cell arrangements or segregated asset plans in which the U.S. owner has a financial interest. The U.S.-based individual or entity claims deductions for the cost of “insurance coverage” provided by a fronting carrier, which reinsures the “coverage” with the foreign corporation.

  1. Monetized Installment Sales

This involves the inappropriate use of the installment sale rules by a seller who, in the year of a sale of property, effectively receives the sales proceeds through purported loans. The seller enters into a contract to sell appreciated property for cash and then purports to sell the same property to an intermediary in return for an installment note. The intermediary then “sells” the property and receives the cash purchase price. In a series of related steps, the seller receives an amount equivalent to the sales price in the form of an unsecured loan.

Don’t get caught by one of the IRS “Dirty Dozen”, including transactions that could be aggressively promoted scams. Read about how to identify and avoid the Top Tax Scams for 2022 at https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/irs-warns-taxpayers-of-dirty-dozen-tax-scams-for-2022.

Business Financial Records

More than 500,000 small businesses are born every year, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA). Many of those new businesses have the same questions: How do I keep my business finances straight? When should I start keeping financial records? What tools should I use to manage it all? 

Business owners must get control over and understand their finances and make good financial decisions to sustain their business. On top of that, the IRS expects businesses to keep financial records to substantiate the income and expense information reported on income tax returns. 

Here are three steps to help businesses keep financial records:

  1. Segregate Business and Personal Finances 

Open a separate business account to avoid commingling personal and business funds. Don’t wait – open the account as soon as possible. If you can, do it before incurring any business expenses. Apply for a business credit card to avoid putting business expenses on your personal credit card. Separating personal and business finances provides a transparent view of your business progress.

  1. Track All Financial Activity

Maintain a record of all business income and expenses in real-time, or at least monthly. Expenses should be tracked by category, so you know where your funds are going. The IRS does not specify a particular system or format for business records, only that your records are accurate, complete, and provide enough detail to identify the date, amount, and business purpose. Computer software packages purchased online or in retail stores can be very helpful, easy to use, and require very little knowledge of bookkeeping and accounting.

  1. Plan and Monitor

Even without a formal budget, you need to plan for monthly and annual income and expenses. Having a plan for your finances helps to prioritize your business activities and provides a baseline to monitor your progress using your financial records. Didn’t meet your plan? Don’t see it as a failure; it’s an opportunity to assess and adjust your activities.

Every business is different, but they all have one thing in common – they can’t make good decisions without getting control over and understanding their finances. Keeping financial records is essential. Paying a qualified and experienced professional to help with recordkeeping is a great option. But if that’s not in your budget, taking these three steps will help you feel confident about your financial records and to satisfy the IRS.

The IRS has help for new (and not-do-new) businesses to keep their financial records. Here’s the link to why you need to keep records – https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/why-should-i-keep-records. Here’s the link for assistance on how to keep those records – https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/recordkeeping.

Business or Hobby?

Do you have income from a freelance activity that you think of as a business? Are you reporting tax losses from a freelance activity on your individual income tax return? Will the IRS consider your freelance work a business and allow your loss deductions, or a hobby and disallow those losses? Like many other tax questions, the answers are “it depends.” 

The IRS can contend that money-losing freelance activities are hobbies rather than businesses, and that you cannot deduct tax losses. However, if you can show a profit motive for your freelance activity, even if you have tax losses, you can classify that activity as a business for tax purposes and deduct any business losses to offset other taxable income that you have.

Determining if your hobby has grown into a business can be confusing. Also, some businesses, like artists or actors, can experience losses over several years when they are trying to make a profit. To help avoid confusion, the IRS established factors to consider when determining whether a freelance activity is a business or hobby. These factors include:

  1. Conducting the activity in a business-like manner by keeping good records and seeking profit-making strategies
  1. Promoting your business cause by joining professional organizations and participating in networking or marketing events
  1. Keeping a calendar of activities and financial records
  1. Following business regulations in your area and professional standards for your profession
  1. Spending enough time to substantiate that the activity is a business and not a hobby
  1. Having the expectation of asset appreciation, such as with rental real estate
  1. Demonstrating success in other ventures, indicating business acumen
  1. Reporting a history of up-and-down income from the activity and losses caused by unusual events
  1. Indicating that you can afford to absorb ongoing hobby losses because of significant income from other sources

Determining if your hobby has grown into a business can be confusing. Will the IRS consider your freelance work a business and allow your loss deductions to offset other taxable income? It depends. To help avoid confusion about your freelance activity, the IRS established a number of factors to help you figure it out. You can learn more details at https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/heres-how-to-tell-the-difference-between-a-hobby-and-a-business-for-tax-purposes.