Lingering limbo

Businesses uncertain about tax law impact


AP Business Writer


Five months after massive federal tax changes became law, many small business owners still don’t know whether they’ll be winners or losers.

Mike Kaeding would like to know how his real-estate development and management company will be affected by two big changes – the deductibility of business meals, and a 20 percent income deduction for many owners of what are called pass-through businesses.

Big corporations already know their tax rates are falling, and all businesses can get bigger deductions for equipment purchases. But small business owners and tax advisers are still waiting for the IRS to write regulations and guidelines explaining and enforcing many parts of the law that is itself more than 500 pages long.

“We have a high level of uncertainty and that makes it difficult,” says Kaeding, president of Norhart in Forest Lake, Minn.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, a professional group, has asked the IRS to expedite regulations on business meals and the 20 percent deduction. Ken Rubin, a CPA with Rubin Brown in St. Louis, says clients have been asking his opinion about what is and isn’t deductible.

“These are unclear, significant items that small businesses are worried about,” says Rubin, who is also a member of the AICPA’s tax executive committee.

Small corporations structured such as General Motors or Apple know they’ll have a 21 percent tax rate, compared to a previous range of 15 percent to 35 percent – the same change the big companies are getting. And many small manufacturers and construction companies will be able to use what’s known as the cash basis method of accounting, a much simpler system than the method required before.

But a survey of 603 owners taken in early April by Wells Fargo and Gallup showed many owners were still in the dark. Thirty-nine percent said they don’t know how the law will affect their companies. A third said it had already helped their companies or would do so, and 27 percent didn’t expect it to benefit their businesses.

For owners of pass-through businesses – sole proprietors, partners and owners of companies structured as S corporations – the uncertainty around the 20 percent deduction comes from the list of ways they could be disqualified. For these companies, the business income is “passed through” to the owners’ 1040 forms, and they pay tax based on individual rather than corporate rates.

Certain business owners such as lawyers, accountants, doctors and consultants won’t qualify for the full deduction unless their taxable income is below $157,500 for single filers or $315,000 for joint filers, and the amount of the deduction will decline as taxpayers’ incomes rise. The same goes for business coaches, public speakers, therapists – according to the law, any trade or business whose principal asset “is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees.” But the IRS has yet to weigh in on a number of issues, including the calculations businesses must make to determine the income that can qualify for the deduction.

Business owners should also meet as soon as possible with accountants to get a sense of how they could be affected, says Monic Ramirez, a CPA with Sensiba San Filippo in Morgan Hill, Calif.

“So much has changed in the new law. You need to sit down with your tax preparer and see what parts of this are going to benefit your company and how can you position yourself to take advantage of it,” she says.

Kaeding, though, is concerned about the cost of complying with the law – he expects a higher bill from his accountant. And the confusion is a distraction from running his business.

“All the time we spend understanding the tax system does not help our customers,” Kaeding says.

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