Influencer marketing could help your business (or not)

Most companies today have some sort of presence on social media as part of their marketing efforts. If you’ve spent any time online as a business owner, you’d probably agree that building a following and getting meaningful reactions to your posts isn’t easy.

One way that some companies rise above the din is to not only promote themselves on social media, but also engage someone else to do it — someone who already has a huge following and gets copious views and “likes” a day. These individuals are commonly known as “social media influencers.”

The case for and against

The term isn’t without controversy. Some people associate it with celebrities who are good at drawing attention to themselves on social media but come up rather short on substantive content. A few influencers have even said or done things that reflected poorly on the businesses they were endorsing.

What’s more, influencers aren’t evenly distributed across all industries. Companies in fashion or cosmetics, for example, have many potential endorsers to choose from. Other types of businesses may have few, if any, “celebrities” shouting their praises — though most industry niches have at least a few voices that ring out louder than others on social media. Whether it’s worth paying one of these individuals to promote your products or services, however, isn’t always an easy “yes.”

So, this marketing strategy has its risks. And yet, if it didn’t work, companies wouldn’t pay social-media celebrities big bucks to tout their products or services. Those that do know that influencers have ready access to abundant followers. Just one image or video with a few positive words can lead to a sales boost.

Why? For their devotees, influencers have a built-in credibility on certain topics. When an influencer promotes a product or service, the business that provides it immediately assumes an air of legitimacy. The person’s followers may share the influencer’s post with others, immediately visit the company’s website or, in a best-case scenario, just start buying.

Risk management recommendations

Like any other marketing initiative, influencer marketing calls for careful research, planning and management. As mentioned, there may not be anyone in your industry or niche who can provide a suitable return on investment. In such a case, don’t force it.

If you do find a potentially viable influencer, ensure the person’s background and posting history align with your company’s mission, vision and values. It’s critical that an influencer’s interest in your business is genuine. Social media users can sniff out insincerity immediately and could make a viral mockery of an inauthentic endorsement.

When setting up a deal, establish each party’s expectations in writing. Lay out the respective roles and responsibilities, with ground rules and timelines for objectives. If possible, determine the market rate for influencers in your industry and make sure the compensation involved won’t strain cash flow. Ask an attorney to review the contract.

Finally, don’t treat the interaction as purely transactional. Take the time and effort to build a strong relationship with the influencer. Set up an in-person meeting (or at least a virtual one). Talk about the history and culture of your company. Send them branded swag, if possible, and keep in touch regularly.

No slam dunk

Is influencer marketing a slam dunk for every business? Certainly not. But it could represent an overlooked way to boost your company’s visibility in the marketplace — if the right partner is out there.

Awarded money in a lawsuit or settlement? It’s only tax-free in certain circumstances

You generally must pay federal tax on all income you receive but there are some exceptions when you can exclude it. For example, compensatory awards and judgments for “personal physical injuries or physical sickness” are free from federal income tax under the tax code. This includes amounts received in a lawsuit or a settlement and in a lump sum or in installments.

But as taxpayers in two U.S. Tax Court cases learned, not all awards are tax-free. For example, punitive damages and awards for unlawful discrimination or harassment are taxable. And the tax code states that “emotional distress shall not be treated as a physical injury or physical sickness.”

Here are the facts of the two cases.

Case #1: Payment was for personal injuries, not physical injuries

A taxpayer received a settlement of more than $327,000 from his former employer in connection with a lawsuit. He and his spouse didn’t report any part of the settlement on their joint tax return for the year in question. The IRS determined the couple owed taxes and penalties of more than $119,000 as a result of not including the settlement payment in their gross income.

Although the settlement agreement provided the payment was “for alleged personal injuries,” the Tax Court stated there was no evidence that it was paid on account of physical injuries or sickness. The court noted that the taxpayer’s complaint against the employer “alleged only violations of (state) labor and antidiscrimination laws, wrongful termination, breach of contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

The taxpayer argued that he had a physical illness that caused his employer to terminate him. But he didn’t provide a “direct causal link” between the illness and the settlement payment. Therefore, the court ruled, the amount couldn’t be excluded from his gross income. (TC Memo 2022-90)

Case #2: Legal malpractice payment doesn’t qualify for exclusion

This case began when the taxpayer was injured while at a hospital receiving medical treatment. She sued for negligence but lost her case. She then sued her attorneys for legal malpractice.

She received $125,000 in a settlement of her lawsuit against the attorneys. The amount was not reported on her tax return for the year in question. The IRS audited the taxpayer’s return and determined that the $125,000 payment should have been included in gross income. The tax agency issued her a bill for more than $32,000 in taxes and penalties.

The taxpayer argued that the payment was received “on account of personal physical injuries or physical sickness” because if it wasn’t for her former attorneys’ allegedly negligent representation, she “would have received damages from the hospital.” The IRS argued the amount was taxable because it was for legal malpractice and not for physical injuries. The U.S. Tax Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the IRS. (Blum, 3/23/22)

Strict requirements

As you can see, the requirements for tax-free income from a settlement are strict. If you receive a court award or out-of-court settlement, consult with us about the tax implications.

Supreme Court: Overtime rules still apply to highly compensated employees

If you were told someone earns more than $200,000 annually, you might assume the person is a salaried employee who’s ineligible for overtime pay. However, as demonstrated in the recent U.S. Supreme Court case of Helix Energy Solutions Group, Inc. v. Hewitt, this isn’t always a safe assumption.

The FLSA rules

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), hourly “nonexempt” wage earners generally must receive overtime pay for hours worked beyond 40 hours per workweek. A workweek doesn’t need to be a calendar week — for example, a Wednesday to Tuesday workweek would qualify.

To be exempt from overtime (and minimum wage) regulations, most employees need to be paid at least $684 per week or $35,568 annually. This is known as the salary level test. An exempt employee must also pass the job duties test, the conditions for which vary by position. For instance, to qualify for the executive exemption, the job duties test stipulates that:

  • The employee’s primary duty must be managing the enterprise or a department or subdivision of the enterprise,
  • The employee must customarily and regularly direct the work of at least two or more other full-time employees or their equivalents, and
  • The employee must have the authority to hire or fire other employees, or the employee’s suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other employment status change must be given particular weight.

Case details

In the aforementioned Supreme Court case, the employee involved was a “tool-pusher” whose duties included supervising other offshore oil rig workers. He was paid a daily rate ranging from $963 to $1,341 per day, resulting in earnings of more than $200,000 annually. Under the compensation scheme, the daily rate increased each consecutive day worked.

The employee filed suit claiming his employer violated the FLSA’s overtime provisions. In response, the company argued that he was exempt from overtime pay as a “bona fide executive.”

To qualify for such an exemption, an employee must meet the salary level and job duties tests as mentioned above. But the employee also needs to satisfy the salary basis test. Under FLSA regulations, a bona fide executive may satisfy the salary basis test if the person is a highly compensated employee (HCE) — that is, one who earns at least $107,432 or more per year (or $100,000 per year before January 1, 2020).

The Court’s decision

The Supreme Court held in a 6-3 ruling that an HCE who’s paid at a daily rate is not considered to be paid a salary. Therefore, the employee in question wasn’t exempt from receiving overtime pay.

In its majority opinion, the Court reasoned that the HCE rule isn’t only a “simple income level” test for the purposes of exemption. It noted that the employer could have satisfied the exemption if the daily rate was a weekly guarantee that satisfied applicable regulations, or if compensation had been a straight weekly salary.

The Court wasn’t swayed by the company’s objection that paying a weekly guaranteed daily rate or straight weekly salary would have resulted in the employee receiving compensation for days he didn’t work. According to the Court, this only further showed that the employee wasn’t paid a salary and, thus, didn’t meet the requirements for the exemption from overtime pay.

Current and compliant

The business in this case joined many others that have been tripped up by the FLSA’s rules. If your company pays employees overtime, our firm can help you stay current and compliant with the latest applicable regulations.

Protect the “ordinary and necessary” advertising expenses of your business

Under tax law, businesses can generally deduct advertising and marketing expenses that help keep existing customers and bring in new ones. This valuable tax deduction can help businesses cut their taxes.

However, in order to be deductible, advertising and marketing expenses must be “ordinary and necessary.” As one taxpayer recently learned in U.S. Tax Court, not all expenses are eligible. An ordinary expense is one that’s common and accepted in the industry. And a necessary expense is one that’s helpful and appropriate for the business.

According to the IRS, here are some advertising expenses that are usually deductible:

  • Reasonable advertising expenses that are directly related to the business activities.
  • An expense for the cost of institutional or goodwill advertising to keep the business name before the public if it relates to a reasonable expectation to gain business in the future. For example, the cost of advertising that encourages people to contribute to the Red Cross or to participate in similar causes is usually deductible.
  • The cost of providing meals, entertainment, or recreational facilities to the public as a means of advertising or promoting goodwill in the community.

Facts of the recent case

An attorney deducted his car-racing expenses and claimed they were advertising for his personal injury law practice. He contended that his racing expenses, totaling over $303,000 for six tax years, were deductible as advertising because the car he raced was sponsored by his law firm.

The IRS denied the deductions and argued that the attorney’s car racing wasn’t an ordinary and necessary expense paid or incurred while carrying on his business of practicing law. The Tax Court agreed with the IRS.

When making an ordinary and necessary determination for an expense, most courts look to the taxpayer’s primary motive for incurring the expense and whether there’s a “proximate” relationship between the expense and the taxpayer’s occupation. In this case, the taxpayer's car-racing expenses were neither necessary nor common for a law practice, so there was no “proximate” relationship between the expense and the taxpayer’s occupation. And, while the taxpayer said his primary motive for incurring the expense was to advertise his law business, he never raced in the state where his primary law practice was located and he never actually got any legal business from his car-racing activity.

The court noted that the car “sat in his garage” after he returned to the area where his law practice was located. The court added that even if the taxpayer raced in that area, “we would not find his expenses to be legitimate advertising expenses. His name and a decal for his law firm appeared in relatively small print” on his car.

This form of “signage,” the court stated, “is at the opposite end of the spectrum from (say) a billboard or a newspaper ad. Indeed, every driver’s name typically appeared on his or her racing car.” (TC Memo 2023-18)

Keep meticulous records

There are no deductions allowed for personal expenses or hobbies. But as explained above, you can deduct ordinary and necessary advertising and marketing expenses in a bona fide business. The key to protecting your deductions is to keep meticulous records to substantiate them. Contact us with questions about your situation.

Forming a cross-functional sales team

Business owners are often warned about silos. Not the tall, cylindrical structures typically seen on farms or at grain processing facilities. Rather, the insular nature of many departments that results in the hoarding of information and a distinct lack of companywide communication.

Among the most damaging effects of having silos within a business is poor or underperforming sales numbers. When the sales team is the last to know about strategic initiatives, new products or services, and key information about customers, its members can’t do their jobs optimally. One solution to this problem: Form a cross-functional sales team.

What’s that now?

In the broadest sense, a cross-functional team is any group of employees from different departments brought together to solve a problem or fulfill a goal. Such teams can be a great way to develop new products or services, identify and implement technology upgrades, and complete short-term projects.

However, the cross-functional team concept can really shine when applied to sales and marketing. All too often, though the sales and marketing departments are inextricably linked in purpose, the two operate in separate spheres. They often have very different cultures as well, which can lead to negative interoffice politics and poor communication.

Indeed, even sales staffs themselves can form silos within the team. Many salespeople work largely on their own, “coming up for air” to share information and experiences only at occasional sales meetings or in conversations with managers.

Who should play a role?

A cross-functional sales team seeks to demolish any such silos by creating a broad, flat structure within which a diverse group of professionals can communicate and collaborate on improving sales results. To get started forming one, focus on the word “diverse” while also leaning toward individuals who excel at communicating and cooperating effectively.

A cross-functional sales team will obviously need to include members of both the sales and marketing departments. But don’t necessarily stop there. Someone from your IT department could play a role in identifying what type of software or functions within existing systems might best apply to a sales initiative. A customer service rep might be able to provide insights into how customers will likely react to a given strategy. A finance department staffer could give valuable input on pricing and production costs.

As mentioned, a cross-functional sales team should generally be flat in the sense that it doesn’t need a complex leadership structure. In fact, many experts believe it’s best to appoint a non-management employee as the leader to encourage buy-in of the team concept and avoid having the team appear to be just another arm of upper management.

Will it pay off?

When they work, cross-functional sales teams can create exciting innovations to sales and marketing strategies, accelerate the sales cycle, and enable a business to more efficiently achieve strategic objectives.

That said, these teams are also subject to all the potential pitfalls of any assemblage of employees — infighting, lack of direction, insufficient resources and long fruitless meetings. If the concept intrigues you, discuss it with your fellow executives. Should you decide to move forward, develop your cross-functional sales team slowly and carefully.

Changes in Sec. 174 make it a good time to review the R&E strategy of your business

It’s been years since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017 was signed into law, but it’s still having an impact. Several provisions in the law have expired or will expire in the next few years. One provision that took effect last year was the end of current deductibility for research and experimental (R&E) expenses.

R&E expenses

The TCJA has affected many businesses, including manufacturers, that have significant R&E costs. Starting in 2022, Internal Revenue Code Section 174 R&E expenditures must be capitalized and amortized over five years (15 years for research conducted outside the United States). Previously, businesses had the option of deducting these costs immediately as current expenses.

The TCJA also expanded the types of activities that are considered R&E for purposes of IRC Sec. 174. For example, software development costs are now considered R&E expenses subject to the amortization requirement.

Potential strategies

Businesses should consider the following strategies for minimizing the impact of these changes:

  • Analyze costs carefully to identify those that constitute R&E expenses and those that are properly characterized as other types of expenses (such as general business expenses under IRC Sec. 162) that continue to qualify for immediate deduction.
  • If cost-effective, move foreign research activities to the United States to take advantage of shorter amortization periods.
  • If cost-effective, purchase software that’s immediately deductible, rather than developing it in-house, which is now considered an amortizable R&E expense.
  • Revisit the R&E credit if you haven’t been taking advantage of it.

Recent IRS guidance

For 2022 tax returns, the IRS recently released guidance for taxpayers to change the treatment of R&E expenses (Revenue Procedure 2023-11). The guidance provides a way to obtain automatic consent under the tax code to change methods of accounting for specified research or experimental expenditures under Sec. 174, as amended by the TCJA. This is important because unless there’s an exception provided under tax law, a taxpayer must secure the consent of the IRS before changing a method of accounting for federal income tax purposes.

The recent revenue procedure also provides a transition rule for taxpayers who filed a tax return on or before January 17, 2023.

Planning ahead

We can advise you how to proceed. There have also been proposals in Congress that would eliminate the amortization requirements. However, so far, they’ve been unsuccessful. We’re monitoring legislative developments and can help adjust your tax strategies if there’s a change in the law.

Keep an eye out for executive fraud

Occupational fraud can be defined as crimes committed by employees against the organizations that they work for. Perhaps its most dangerous variation is executive fraud — that is, wrongdoings by those in the C-Suite. Senior-level execs are in a prime position to not only inflict substantial amounts of financial damage, but also severely impair the reputation of the business in question.

While your leadership team is likely made up of trustworthy colleagues, it’s still a good idea to keep an eye out for executive fraud and set up defenses against wrongdoing.

3 points of the triangle

Forensic accountants use a paradigm called “the fraud triangle” to explain why occupational fraud occurs. It has three points:

1. Pressure. Executives may feel they need to maintain a lavish lifestyle that involves things such as multiple real estate properties, expensive cars and exotic vacations. The resulting pressure can drive some individuals to overextend their personal finances until debts become insurmountable. Executives may also feel they have to pump up sales numbers or falsify financial statements to shore up their professional performance.

2. Opportunity. As mentioned, these individuals often have the access and authority to commit fraud without getting caught immediately. This is particularly true when the company doesn’t implement or enforce strong internal controls.

3. Rationalization. Dishonest execs may think “everybody does it” or that they “deserve” more than they legitimately earn. Substance abuse or a gambling problem can also impair judgment.

Beyond internal controls

There’s no doubt that internal controls are imperative to preventing and detecting any occupational fraud. However, to best prevent executive fraud, you may need to take extra steps.

At many businesses, senior managers have the authority to override internal controls. So, for starters, establish strict policies regarding when it’s permissible to do so. If an executive believes an override of internal controls is necessary, require a second opinion and thorough documentation.

Beyond that, mandate anti-fraud training for everyone. Sometimes executives are allowed to opt out of such training; this sends the wrong message to both the execs themselves and everyone else.

Also, set up reporting measures. An anonymous hotline enables rank-and-file workers to share concerns and suspicions about fraud without risking their jobs. Ensure the hotline’s integrity by providing only those who need to know, such as fraud investigators, access to the tips. In fact, to ensure a fair and unbiased investigation of any tip that comes in, consider engaging an external fraud expert to investigate every legitimate-seeming allegation.

In cases of verified executive fraud, don’t shirk your responsibility to prosecute. Many businesses are tempted to sidestep civil litigation or criminal prosecution for fear of bad publicity. But allowing executives to commit fraud with little to no real-world ramifications may only increase the likelihood that it happens again.

Transparency is key

In closing, we’d be remiss not to mention the importance of an empowered audit team. Whether your company uses internal or external auditors, or a combination of both, give them unfettered access to financial records and other pertinent information. If the audit team encounters a roadblock, they need to know whom to contact and how to proceed. Contact us for help preventing fraud at your business, whether from executives or anyone else.

ACA penalties will rise in 2024

Recently, the IRS announced 2024 indexing adjustments to the applicable dollar amount used to calculate employer shared responsibility penalties under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Although next year might seem a long way off, it’s best to get an early start on determining whether your business is an applicable large employer (ALE) under the ACA. If so, you should also check to see whether the health care coverage you intend to offer next year will meet the criteria that will exempt you from a penalty.

The magic number

For ACA purposes, an employer’s size is determined in any given year by its number of employees in the previous year. Generally, if your company has 50 or more full-time employees or full-time equivalents on average during the previous year, you’ll be considered an ALE for the current calendar year. A full-time employee is someone who provides, on average, at least 30 hours of service per week.

Under the ACA, an ALE may incur a penalty if it doesn’t offer minimum essential coverage that’s affordable and/or fails to provide minimum value to its full-time employees and their dependents. The penalty in question is typically triggered when at least one full-time employee receives a premium tax credit for buying individual coverage through a Health Insurance Marketplace (commonly referred to as an “exchange”).

Next year’s penalties

The adjusted penalty amounts per full-time employee for failures occurring in the 2024 calendar year will be:

  • $2,970, a $90 increase from 2023, under Section 4980H(a), “Large employers not offering health coverage,” and
  • $4,460, a $140 increase from 2023, under Sec. 4980H(b), “Large employers offering coverage with employees who qualify for premium tax credits or cost-sharing reductions.”

The IRS uses Letter 226-J to inform ALEs of their potential liability for an employer shared responsibility penalty. A response form — Form 14764 (“ESRP Response”) — is included with Letter 226-J so that an ALE can inform the IRS whether it agrees with the proposed penalty. A response is generally due within 30 days. Be on the lookout for this letter so that you’re prepared to promptly review and respond if the IRS contacts you.

Questions and ideas

Careful compliance with the ACA remains critical for companies that qualify as ALEs. Growing small businesses should be particularly wary as they become midsize ones. Our firm can answer any questions you may have about your obligations as well as suggest ways to better manage the costs of health care benefits.

Choosing an entity for your business? How about an S corporation?

If you’re starting a business with some partners and wondering what type of entity to form, an S corporation may be the most suitable form of business for your new venture. Here are some of the reasons why.

A big benefit of an S corporation over a partnership is that as S corporation shareholders, you won’t be personally liable for corporate debts. In order to receive this protection, it’s important that:

  • The corporation be adequately financed,
  • The existence of the corporation as a separate entity be maintained, and
  • Various formalities required by your state be observed (for example, filing articles of incorporation, adopting by-laws, electing a board of directors and holding organizational meetings).

Dealing with losses

If you expect that the business will incur losses in its early years, an S corporation is preferable to a C corporation from a tax standpoint. Shareholders in a C corporation generally get no tax benefit from such losses. In contrast, as S corporation shareholders, each of you can deduct your percentage share of losses on your personal tax return to the extent of your basis in the stock and in any loans you made to the entity. Losses that can’t be deducted because they exceed your basis are carried forward and can be deducted by you in the future when there’s sufficient basis.

Once the S corporation begins to earn profits, the income will be taxed directly to you whether or not it’s distributed. It will be reported on your individual tax return and be aggregated with income from other sources. Your share of the S corporation’s income won’t be subject to self-employment tax, but your wages will be subject to Social Security taxes. To the extent the income is passed through to you as qualified business income (QBI), you’ll be eligible to take the 20% pass-through deduction, subject to various limitations.

Note: Unless Congress acts to extend it, the QBI deduction is scheduled to expire after 2025.

If you’re planning to provide fringe benefits such as health and life insurance, you should be aware that the costs of providing such benefits to a more than 2% shareholder are deductible by the entity but are taxable to the recipient.

Protecting S status

Also be aware that the S corporation could inadvertently lose its S status if you or your partners transfer stock to an ineligible shareholder such as another corporation, a partnership or a nonresident alien. If the S election was terminated, the corporation would become a taxable entity. You would not be able to deduct any losses and earnings could be subject to double taxation — once at the corporate level and again when distributed to you. In order to protect against this risk, it’s a good idea for each shareholder to sign an agreement promising not to make any transfers that would jeopardize the S election.

Before finalizing your choice of entity, consult with us. We can answer any questions you have and assist in launching your new venture.

Some taxpayers qualify for more favorable “head of household” tax filing status

When preparing your tax return, we’ll check one of the following statuses: Single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household or qualifying widow(er). Filing a return as a head of household is more favorable than filing as a single taxpayer.

For example, the 2023 standard deduction for a single taxpayer is $13,850 while it’s $20,800 for a head of household taxpayer. To be eligible, you must maintain a household, which for more than half the year, is the principal home of a “qualifying child” or other relative of yours whom you can claim as a dependent.

Basic rules

Who is a qualifying child? This is a child who:

  • Lives in your home for more than half the year,
  • Is your child, stepchild, adopted child, foster child, sibling, stepsibling (or a descendant of any of these),
  • Is under age 19 (or a student under 24), and
  • Doesn’t provide over half of his or her own support for the year.

If the parents are divorced, the child will qualify if he or she meets these tests for the custodial parent — even if that parent released his or her right to a dependency exemption for the child to the noncustodial parent.

A person isn’t a “qualifying child” if he or she is married and can’t be claimed by you as a dependent because he or she filed jointly or isn’t a U.S. citizen or resident. Special “tie-breaking” rules apply if the individual can be a qualifying child of more than one taxpayer.

You’re considered to “maintain a household” if you live in the home for the tax year and pay over half the cost of running it. In measuring the cost, include house-related expenses incurred for the mutual benefit of household members, including property taxes, mortgage interest, rent, utilities, insurance on the property, repairs and upkeep, and food consumed in the home. Don’t include items such as medical care, clothing, education, life insurance or transportation.

Maintaining a home for a parent 

Under a special rule, you can qualify as head of household if you maintain a home for a parent of yours even if you don’t live with the parent. To qualify under this rule, you must be able to claim the parent as your dependent.

Marital status

You must be unmarried to claim head of household status. If you’re unmarried because you’re widowed, you can use the married filing jointly rates as a “surviving spouse” for two years after the year of your spouse’s death if your dependent child, stepchild, adopted child, or foster child lives with you and you “maintain” the household. The joint rates are more favorable than the head of household rates.

If you’re married, you must file either as married filing jointly or separately — not as head of household. However, if you’ve lived apart from your spouse for the last six months of the year and your dependent child, stepchild, adopted child, or foster child lives with you and you “maintain” the household, you’re treated as unmarried. If this is the case, you can qualify as head of household.

We can answer questions if you’d like to discuss a particular situation or would like additional information about whether someone qualifies as your dependent.