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Uncertainty about Tax Law for 2011 Means Use Common Sense Approach to Planning

By Paul Hense, CPA

This may be the most difficult year-end planning tax advisors have ever experienced. It is fall and we still don’t know what the tax law will look like in 2011. The political parties are in a struggle over a fundamental concept of who best knows how to spend your money – you or them. It is fairly certain that taxes will rise for those making over $250,000 per year.

Predicting a political outcome is risky; Here are a two examples where last minute tax law decisions may affect your actions:

Due to the uncertainty of the tax rates for 2011, we may do a reversal of the normal process of delaying income and accelerating expenses. In a normal year, in order to defer taxes, it often makes sense to delay income and move expenses to an earlier year. If in the next few months it becomes apparent that taxes will be higher in 2011, you may want to reverse that process. There is nothing in the tax law that requires you maximize your taxes. The use of accelerated depreciation is an example of an option that moves expenses from one year to the next or vice versa. It is generally considered prudent to use expensing equipment to reduce current year tax liability. If small business loses the political battle and tax rates increase, it may be wise to take normal depreciation and use the remainder depreciation in future years offsetting the higher tax rate. Keep in touch with your accountant for developing strategies.

We have enjoyed a favorable treatment for capital gains over the past several years. We may continue to have a favorable treatment; but possibly not quite as favorable. Again we have to wait until politicians hash out their differences to see what the end result will yield. The most likely scenario is that the capital gains rate will increase – by how much, we do not know. You and your accountant need to be on top of the situation because you may want to accelerate the sale of a capital asset or a business to take advantage of the lower 2010 capital gains rate. This is not a sure thing. We cannot say for sure that capital gains rates will increase. However, if they do, you need to be prepared to make the proper moves to take advantage of the situation.

Even though this is an unusual year due to tax uncertainties in 2011 you still must do some basic year-end tax planning.

If you have a pension plan, you should review your documents and make sure that everyone who is eligible is included and make sure you do not include ineligible people. The tax benefits of a pension plan are obvious, but the cash flow issues can be a problem. You must remember when committing funds to pay a pension plan that those funds must be deposited by the mandated date. Different plans have different funding arrangements, but in all cases remember to have the funds available at the time they are due.

Consider your equipment needs for the coming year. Don’t buy assets you don’t need in order to take advantage of a tax deduction. If you’re going to need new equipment in the near future, sit down with your accountant and decide the best time to buy the equipment considering cash flow and section 179 write offs – also referred to as expensing. If cash and credit are tight, you may decide to lease as opposed to buy equipment. The tax advantages are not as good, but cash flow dictates decision-making as opposed to taxes. Make good business decisions, be profitable, and then figure out the tax consequences. Do remember however, that a reduction in your taxes can be part of providing the cash flow for the purchase of equipment. Do the math with your accountant.

We are in a difficult economy with an unstable tax system. With these two issues in mind, cash flow and tax planning can be in conflict. I have only touched on a couple issues as examples. It is advised that every small business owner do a complete checklist of year-end issues and review them. This is a critical time to work closely with your tax advisor. November and December of this year will be critical in planning your 2010 tax scenario. Now is the time to address these issues. January will be too late.  

Paul Hense is a Grand Rapids-based CPA and long-time SBAM member and supporter.
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