Business Provisions of the American Taxpayer Relief Act

While a good majority of the tax changes in the 11th hour Fiscal Cliff bill (American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012) concern individual taxes, there are a few changes for small business owners, which are mostly centered around the extension of and retroactive change to depreciation limits and rules.

Section 179 Depreciation Limit

In 2011, we had a $500k limit on the amount that could be taken as Section 179 depreciation expense (provided the business purchased less than $2 million in qualifying property in the year).  This limit was very generous and few small businesses had to worry about getting close to this limit.  However, in 2012 the limit was scheduled to be reduced to $139k (after inflation adjustments), and then even further reduction to $25k in 2013.  For small businesses that acquire a lot of equipment each year, such large limit reductions would have a big impact.

All of 2012, we were unsure if Congress would increase the Section 179 limit, and finally after the ball dropped in Times Square and many of us had resigned ourselves to the 139k limit, our bickering government representatives finally get it together and decided to make a retroactive change to the 2012 limit.  Now, it is as if the the treat of the $139k limit never existed, and we now have a $500k limit for 2012 and 2013.

Now, correct me if I am wrong, but I thought the purpose the Section 179 depreciation benefit was to encourage business owners to buy more business equipment and help spur economic growth?  How are we suppose buy equipment when our government does not decide on the depreciation limit until after the year is over?  I had several clients that typically buy more than $139k in equipment that were trying to make purchase decisions at year-end, and the delay caused by partisan politics in Washington on this limit was extremely frustrating.

Bonus Depreciation Kept Alive

Is bonus depreciation ever going to truly go away?  It seems it is always brought back by 11th hour legislation.  Unfortunately, this time around we only have 50% bonus depreciation that is extended through 2013.  While businesses with net taxable income will use Section 179 depreciation, bonus could be useful for those with losses.

In 2011, we were spoiled with 100% bonus depreciation, and we pretty much wrote off everything in the first year that qualified.  Now we are going to be a little more limited, but it is still a good benefit if you remember back to years before bonus was available.  At best, it provides a great first year deduction for those of you who purchased new vehicles weighing less than 6,000 GVW.  Even with 50% bonus depreciation, you are still going to get $11,160 in depreciation in the first year ($11,360 if a light van or truck) given that most new vehicles are well over $22,320 these days.  Remember, it has to be a brand new.  Certified new does not qualify.

Qualified Leasehold Improvement Retroactive Change

Even though this one will greatly benefit my calendar year filing businesses, it frustrates me to no end that Congress would make this change retroactive to 2012.  Not only did it make one paragraph from my book obsolete, but we are going to have to file several amendments for our fiscal year corporations that have already filed tax returns with qualified leasehold improvements put into use after 1/1/12.

To fully understand my frustration, you need the background history on this tax deduction:

  • In 2011 (and several years prior) you could depreciate qualifying leasehold improvements over 15 years and then use Section 179 or bonus depreciation on the improvements.
  • Before this rule, we had to depreciate them over 39 years, so this was a BIG benefit.
  • Due to the patchwork of tax code in the last few years, the special treatment expired as of 1/1/12, and qualified leasehold improvements could no longer be depreciated over 15 years.
  • Even worse, if you had any 179 carryover originating from qualified leasehold improvements at that point, you had to reclassify the amount (according to steps in Sec 179(f)(4)) and depreciate it under the 2012 rules over 39 years.  Reporting this adjustment was a bit complicated since the IRS did really anticipate the expiration of the tax rules, so not only was it a lost benefit, but it cost fiscal year small businesses more in tax prep fees.
  • Fortunately, there was some saving grace in that the qualifying improvements still qualified for bonus depreciation (since the availability of bonus treatment was not based on the 15 year life), so we were able to take 50% bonus depreciation, but the rest went over 39 years.

Now, fast forward a few months after these fiscal year returns have been filed to when we are all enjoying New Years and watching football (or soccer in my case).  Our government officials, in all their wisdom, decide to retroactively change the 2012 rules and make the 15 year special treatment available again.  In addition, they extend it to 2013 as well, so it is as if the rules we used during 2012 for fiscal year filers never existed.

Again, if you are a calender year filer and you made or are looking to make some leasehold improvements that qualify for the 15 year treatment, this is very welcome news.  However, if you are a fiscal year filing corporation, your CPA may need to file amendments for you once the tax preparation software companies update their software for all the Fiscal Cliff bill changes.

By the way, if you bought my book and would like more information on this change, please feel free to email me at pdxcpa@gmx.com.  Again, it only changes one paragraph in the Fixed Assets chapter, but I would be happy to provide additional details on this change for my readers.

Other Extenders

In addition to the depreciation changes and the retroactive change that has me all riled up (much like the Cascadian supporter groups are at Don Garber), there were also some minor extensions that will benefit a select group of small businesses.  The Research and Work Opportunity Tax Credits were both extended through 2013.  The enhanced charitable deduction for contributions of food inventory is also extend through 2013, as is the special treatment of qualified small business stock.

All in all, there was not much change for businesses; however, we will likely see more substantial changes later in the year.  You may say I am a dreamer, but I am thinking we may actually see some comprehensive tax reform this year.

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2009 Year-End Tax Planning – Part 2

Year-End Tax Planning for Small Business Owners

For 2009, there are plenty of year-end tax planning opportunities available to the small business owner.  Some new provisions help businesses that have been dramatically affected by the recession while others help businesses that have had very a profitable year.  Below is a general overview of several of the more important planning opportunities.

Bonus Depreciation:

Many companies used the bonus depreciation provision in 2008; however, due to the current economic conditions, business owners are much more restrained with regard to capital expenditures than in prior years.  Nick Parsons, one of the partners at our firm, recommends concentrating on capital purchases that are needed and will help generate more profit for the business rather than just purchasing for the sake of tax savings.  He also recommends looking at purchases that will need to be made in the next five to six months and accelerating those purchases if possible before year-end.  Even if the business had a poor year, bonus depreciation could produce a tax loss and actual tax refunds with the new net operating loss carryback rules (see below).

Bonus Depreciation details:

  • Only available for NEW property, 20 year class life or less
  • Provision is scheduled to expire after 2009
  • Must be placed in service before year-end

Code Section 179 Depreciation:

Businesses with net taxable income are taking advantage of the new limits on 179 depreciation ($250k), which allow you to write-off the entire cost of the fixed asset within the year of purchase.  However, many businesses are looking at losses this year, so the bonus depreciation can be a better option.  Regardless, using the right mix of bonus and 179 depreciation can create a net operating loss that can be carried back five years under the new rules (see below).

One minor detail to keep in mind – unlike bonus depreciation, the property does not have to be new to qualify for 179 depreciation.

Vehicle Depreciation:

If a business is looking to buy a new vehicle in the next six months, accelerating the purchase before year-end could be very beneficial.  The luxury auto depreciation limits have been increased from $2,960 to $10,960 through 2009 thanks to bonus depreciation rules.  There are different rules for trucks, vans, and SUVs, but for a typical passenger car used more than 50% in business – this provides great tax savings.

Five Year Carryback of Net Operating Losses:

Many businesses affected by the recession have been able to make use of the expanded net operating loss carryback rules for the 2008 tax year, and many received substantial cash refunds that helped them with current cash flow problems.  Now the carryback rules have been extended for 2009 tax losses, which should bring some more immediate help.  However, the rules are a little more complicated this time around:

  • For 2008, the expanded carryback was only applicable to businesses with gross receipts under $15 million.  The net operating loss could be carried back up to five years and there were no further complications.
  • For 2009, the rule is expanded for all businesses, however, there are complications:
    • For businesses under the $15 million gross receipts limit, the 2009 NOL can be carried back up to 5 years even if the 2008 NOL was carried back under the prior rule.  The only difference is that for 2009, you can only use ½ of the taxable income in the fifth year.
    • For businesses over $15 million in gross receipts, they can use the extended NOL carryback for 2008 OR 2009, but not both years.  Also, like with small businesses, they can only use ½ of the taxable income in the fifth year.

Solo 401k Contributions / Profit – Sharing:

For small business owners that had a good year and are looking for tax deductions while putting away for retirement, the solo 401k is an excellent vehicle that many ignore because of the extra reporting requirements.  Small, family-owned businesses often use the SIMPLE IRA plan to put away up to $11,500 ($14,000 age 50 & older) under the 2009 limits.  However, given sufficient self-employment income, the same small business owner can put away up to $49,000 ($54,500 age 50 & older) using a solo 401k plan and also make the same contribution for the business owner’s spouse if they are involved in the business.  The are special requirements for the solo 401k, so it is definitely something you need to speak with a professional about before opening an account.  However, even if the solo 401k is not an option for you, there are other 401k plans that would still save you much more than with a SIMPLE IRA plan.