Posts in: August

Essential Tax & Legal Tips for the NEW Business Owner

August 28, 2017 Business planning, Law, Tax Planning Comments Off on Essential Tax & Legal Tips for the NEW Business Owner

Starting a business is a process.  It is MUCH more than filing the one or two page articles/certificate of formation with the state.  At the same time, it doesn’t have to be so complicated and overwhelming that you never start.   Further, not only is starting a business a process, it’s a process that is unique to YOU.  It is not a cookie-cutter one size fits all proposition.  What your business and YOUR situation require may be completely different than anyone else you might know who is self-employed.  Having said that, here are 8 tips that apply to all businesses, but how to USE these tips will be different for each business owner:

  1. Operate out of and properly maintain the appropriate entity formation for YOUR situation. While it is true you can operate your business as a sole proprietorship, I think it’s generally better to operate your business out of an entity such as an LLC or corporation.  First, I think it has a positive impact on your mindset as a business owner in that it makes you feel more “legit”and others will see you the same. More importantly, it is always better to operate your business out of an entity such as an LLC or corporation as those companies prevent liability of the business from extending to the owners.  Lastly, operating out of an entity can in certain situations produce tax savings such as when operating out of an S-corporation to save self-employment taxes. This is generally recommended for operating businesses who have $30-$40k net annual income.
  2. Make sure you have a partnership/ownership agreement if there are other owners. If you have somebody that you trust to own and run your business WITH YOU, that’s a great thing, and hopefully you continue to have a great business relationship with that person(s).  But don’t let that be a reason to NOT get your relationship in writing through a written agreement that you both/all would sign to memorialize the rights and obligations of each other.  If the business fails or one of the owners wants out or isn’t “pulling their weight” and you didn’t address this in writing BEFORE the crisis/event has occurred, that friendly business partner could wind up AGAINST YOU.
  3. Embrace bookkeeping. Embrace the fact that bookkeeping is one of the keys to maximizing tax write-offs and commit to either obtain the right training to do it yourself OR see the value in outsourcing it to someone who knows what they’re doing.  Maybe your strength as an entrepreneur is the marketing/sales side of business, or you have the relationships to be successful, but when it comes to taxes, you must keep good records, and for all your strengths, if you’re not organized, you’re going to get killed in an IRS audit.  So either learn to be organized with your records in terms of tracking expenses and use a good bookkeeping software (Mark Kohler offers a great set of videos that train on how to use Quickbooks), or outsource it to someone else who is good at it so you can focus on what you do best. The clients who embrace bookkeeping usually have more write-offs and deductions come tax-time as they rarely miss an opportunity to expense something.
  4. Have periodic tax and legal consults with your attorney and CPA. Unfortunately, many small business owners don’t use a business attorney ever, and maybe only meet with their CPA once a year, assuming they even use a CPA.  I think the cost of meeting with a good business attorney and CPA at least twice a year is worth the cost.  Prevention is much less expensive than the cost of getting “sick”, whether “sick” is an unnecessary amount or risk exposure that leads to a lawsuit, or whether “sick” is failure to maximize tax write-offs and you’re paying more than necessary to Uncle Sam, OR, maybe without a good CPA you’re TOO aggressive on your taxes or even worse, you don’t file a return at all and the IRS comes knocking.  Not to mention meeting with your attorney and/or CPA is a tax write-off!  On the legal side, it is good to get periodic “checkups” on how your business is structured, what has changed, what’s coming up that is new in your business, etc., so that your business attorney can guide you on mitigating your risks and protecting against liabilities.  On the tax side, it’s good to also get periodic “checkups” to talk about tax strategies and which ones you aren’t maximizing or implementing, or which ones you’re doing wrong that is going to be a problem in an audit, i.e. health care, paying kids, auto, home office, dining, entertainment, travel, tax deductible contributions to retirement plans, owning real estate, etc.
  5. Be sure to have adequate insurance for your business. This legal tip is not new or cutting edge by any means, but the failure to follow it could be catastrophic to your business.  A good insurance broker can help a great deal to match up the appropriate amount of insurance (in terms of amount and policy types) for YOUR business.   You don’t want to spend TOO much of your business income on insurance premiums but if you don’t have any insurance, if/when a liability comes up in your business, and you don’t have an appropriate insurance policy to divert that financial responsibility for that claim/liability to an insurance company, it puts the full force of that claim or liability on potentially ALL of the assets and income of your business.
  6. Make sure to use contracts in your business and don’t rely on verbal conversations or handshake deals. You may have heard that under the law in most situations verbal contracts are enforceable.  That doesn’t mean you should RELY on them, especially with the core aspects of your business i.e. your clients, your vendors, your business partners, etc., you want to properly memorialize the agreement IN WRITING.  This will make it SO much easier to prove your case in court if the other party violates/breaches the written contract versus trying to prove they breached/violated a contract that is not in writing and signed by all parties.  You should have a good service contract or something applicable that is provided to your customers.  This not only helps with enforcing any liabilities or claims you have against them (non-payment for example), but it also is REALLY helpful to clarify the SCOPE of what your business WILL do for them and what your business will NOT do for them.  If you don’t clarify that in writing, you have no idea what your customer assumes or expects, so even it doesn’t result in a lawsuit, it can create a rift between your business and that client and result in bad press about your business on social media, etc.
  7. Make sure you are properly characterizing your workers (independent contractor v. employee). There is a temptation for the small business owner to view/consider ALL of their workers as independent contractors.  The small business owner loves to do that because there’s no payroll tax, no added costs for worker’s compensation, unemployment, employee benefits, etc.  Unfortunately, the federal and state taxing authorities do not take YOUR word alone that your workers are actually independent contractors.  IF you improperly classify workers as independent contractors and the government (state or federal) determines they are employees, you will have fines and penalties.  Don’t misunderstand, you can have workers that ARE independent contractors, so long as they are TREATED as independent contractors, and the key word there is “independent”.  If you’re going to micro-manage what they wear, when they work, how they work, where they work, etc., that doesn’t sound very “independent” and it sounds at lot like an employee, which it is sometimes necessary to have that much control of your workers, but you can’t have it both ways, if you treat them like employees, you have to accept that it comes with things like payroll taxes, unemployment, worker’s comp, etc.
  8. Have an exit strategy (including an estate plan). Understandably your primary concern is getting the business STARTED, so you might think it would be unproductive to think about an exit strategy so early in the “game”, but it is so important to have that in your mind.  Do you want to grow the business and sell it soon as possible or hold onto it and pass it loved ones, or maybe you want to buy out your partner’s ownership (or vice versa).  There are many unknowns that make it difficult to have any certainty about what WILL happen, but it’s very productive to consider the ways in which it COULD happen and form an opinion on what seems most appealing to you.  But REGARDLESS of what your exit strategy is, you should make sure your business ownership and estate plan is coordinated.  Even if you plan to sell the business as soon as possible, and you have no plans of owning the business for the long-term, the spontaneity of death requires that even in that situation, your business ownership be coordinated with your estate plan.  Don’t forget about incapacity either.  This could mean you have power of attorney documents in your estate plan that contemplates ownership/operation of your business if you become incapacitated.

In sum, your business needs you as the business owner to make sure your business is healthy from both a tax and legal perspective.  These tips are a great starting point to make sure that happens.  Our office is available to assist and would love to help you and your business with implementing these and other tips specifically to you and your business.

Til Death Do Us Part – Marriage and Asset Protection

August 15, 2017 Asset Protection Comments Off on Til Death Do Us Part – Marriage and Asset Protection

The question of whether a spouse can be held liable for the debts of the other spouse is often asked from married  (or to be married) couples, but the answer is not uniform and depends largely on  the laws of the state where you reside.

MOST STATES – COMMON LAW TREATMENT

The large majority of states that are NOT one of the nine “community property” states discussed below operate under the “common law” system, derived from Great Britain.  In these common law states, the liabilities of married couples are generally determined under the “title” theory, meaning whichever spouse is on title for the asset owns the asset, and whichever spouse was responsible for incurring the debt is solely responsible for that debt.  Spouses in common law states are generally not jointly liable for debts unless they both are involved in procuring the debt as a “joint debt.”  As a result, if a married individual in a common law state alone incurs a debt, the creditor would generally be limited to recovering from that individual’s assets only, and no recovery could be made from assets titled in the name of that individual’s spouse.   On the surface, this would encourage married couples to segregate their finances so that valuable assets are held in the name of the spouse with lessor risk, and corresponding debts in the name of the spouse with higher risk.  However, these rules are very state specific and, of course, moving your assets around when a creditor is already on the horizon raises fraudulent conveyance concerns, and so any asset protection planning should be done before the need arises.

Some common law states create an exception to the “title” rule for debts that are deemed for “necessities” or for “family expenses.”  In those states, spouses may be jointly liable for debts that are necessary for the family such as education, household, or medical debt even if the debt was obtained by one spouse only.   States also vary in how broadly they define debts deemed to be “necessities” or for “family expenses,”  and so it is important to understand how your state defines these terms to understand under what circumstances a creditor can attach the assets of a both spouses for the debts of only one.  Other states impose joint liability if the liability was created when a spouse was deemed to be acting as an agent of the other spouse, and so anyone concerned about spousal liability would need to familiarize themselves with the rules unique to their state.

TENANCY BY THE ENTIRETIES

In states that recognize “tenancy by the entireties,” assets owned jointly by the spouses as “tenants by the entireties” are deemed to be owned by the couple as a whole, and not owned by each spouse individually.   In these jurisdictions, a creditor of one spouse is generally unable to attach property owned “by the entireties” unless the other spouse also joined in the creation of the debt.   Therefore married couples in states that allow “tenancy by the entireties” often hold valuable real estate in this manner which can provide effective asset protection against creditors of just one of the spouses.   Again, these rules are not uniform as some states may find that a debt entered into by one spouse is nevertheless a joint debt if the non-debtor spouses knows, benefits, consents or ratifies the debt.

COMMUNITY PROPERTY

In the nine community property states (CA, AZ, TX, WA, ID, NV, NM, WI, and LA) which derives their marital property law from the Spanish system, each spouse in a marriage is deemed to own a ½ interest in assets that are deemed community property.  Since each spouse has a half-interest their individual debts could be attached and satisfied by a creditor against their 1/2 interest.  Therefore, by contrast to the common law system which relies heavily on “title,” the key component in community property states is not who owns the property, but how the property is characterized.   For these reasons, experts generally agree that community property states are more creditor friendly than their common law counterparts.  For example, assume a couple consisting of a primary wage earner and a homemaker.  The wage earner purchases a house during marriage using wages from employment, and takes title in the wage earner’s name only.  The homemaker then gets into a car accident which is not fully covered by insurance.  The resulting liabilities would obviously depend on the specific state but generally, in a common law state, the house could be protected from the homemaker’s liabilities because title is held in the wage earner’s name only, whereas in a community property state, ½ of the house could be exposed because the property would likely be deemed community property which the homemaker owns a ½ interest.   Therefore, marriage in a community property state could effectively expand the potential assets that creditors of either spouse can reach to the extent a married couple acquires assets characterized as community property.

Since exposure of assets in community property states depends on characterization, there is an incentive for married residents in community property states to consider marital property agreements that alter the characterization of assets (i.e. pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreements).   The procedural requirements to form an enforceable marital property agreement, and the extent to which such agreement will protect your assets will depend on the laws of the state.  Therefore, consulting with an expert who understands these nuances in the respective state is essential to ensure that any asset protection goals are maximized.

Any married individual concerned about asset protection would be well served to understand the specific rules in your state governing the exposure of your assets to creditors, what tools exist in your state to mitigate your exposure to spousal liability, and how to utilize these tools in a manner that maximizes your protection in the event of an unforeseen liability.   Most important is the need to engage in this planning before it is actually needed as any planning done when a creditor is already in the fray may be vulnerable to attack as a fraudulent conveyance.

Pokémon No! How Pikachu Ended Up Getting Served with a Class Action Lawsuit

August 10, 2017 Law, Litigation Comments Off on Pokémon No! How Pikachu Ended Up Getting Served with a Class Action Lawsuit

Remember Pokémon Go? About this time last year, the “augmented reality” game in which players use their smartphones to capture and train various species of Pokémon was a global phenomenon, with nearly seven million daily downloads. It was sort of the “thing to do” of Summer 2016.

While Pokémon Fever has certainly subsided a bit, the game still has plenty of rabid fans. In fact, last month’s Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago drew 20,000 Pokémon Go die-hards to the city’s Grant Park. The Fest was billed as a chance for Pokémon Go “trainers” to compete against each other and bag rare Pokémon characters. Instead, as it turned out, attendees encountered hours’ worth of lines, a lack of data connectivity, problems with the game’s software, and malfunctions of the game’s servers. The Fest has been almost unanimously derided as a disaster.

In an attempt to quell the uproar regarding the fiasco, Pokémon’s parent company, Niantic, Inc., has offered to refund attendees’ the price of admission ($20) and give them $100 of in-app purchase credit. While definitely a nice gesture, that compensation isn’t cutting it for many Pokémon trainers who traveled from across the country, and the world, to attend.

One disgruntled Pokémon Go fan from California has gone so far as to file a class action lawsuit against Niantic on behalf of all who attended Pokémon Go Fest, seeking damages for, among other things, violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, which broadly prohibits unfair or deceptive business practices. The suit seeks to have Niantic reimburse Fest-goers for their travel and accommodation costs. It also goes after punitive damages to teach Niantic a lesson.

Virtually every state in the Union has a similar “consumer fraud” or “deceptive trade practices” statute. These statutes are designed to protect the public from business activities by that are meant to mislead consumers into purchasing a given product or service.

While each state varies in how offenses are dealt with (i.e. whether a private lawsuit can be filed or a class action is available), the acts that are illegal are at least fairly uniform across state lines. They usually include:

1) False representation of the source, sponsorship, approval, certification, accessories, characteristics, benefits, or quantities of a good or service (Niantic could have a problem here);
2) Representing goods as original or new when, in fact, they are deteriorated, altered, reconditioned, reclaimed, or used;
3) Falsely stating that certain services, replacements, or repairs are needed;
4) Advertising goods or services with the intent of not selling them as advertised, or with the intent of not having enough in stock to meet reasonably expected demand (another possible problem area for Niantic);
5) Disconnecting, turning back, or resetting the odometer of a vehicle to reduce the number of miles indicated;
6) Passing off goods or services as those of another (i.e. selling counterfeit goods); and
7) Representing goods or services as having a sponsorship, approval, sponsorship, or certification of goods or services.

Many of these seem like no-brainers, but as a consumer, it is important to know your rights, and if you are aggrieved to know that you may very well have the weight of a state statute behind you, in addition to common law claims for fraudulent misrepresentation and unjust enrichment.

As a business owner, it is crucial that you know when the conduct of your business may put you at odds with the consumer protection statute(s) in your state – so that you can do your best to make sure that you (as well as your employees and other representatives) DO NOT cross that line.

A little homework can go a long way in helping you protect yourself – both as a consumer and a business owner.