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Monday, March 16, 2015

For How Long Should a Business Keep Tax Records?

There are many reasons for retaining tax records. They can be a useful guide for business planning, for tracking receipts and expenses, and in cases where the company or shares are being sold to outside parties.

The IRS expects taxpayers to keep records for as long as they are needed to administer any part of the Internal Revenue Code. In other words, if you fail to keep records, and an item in a past return is questioned, you may not have the documentation you need to defend yourself and avoid taxes and penalties. In addition, insurance companies and creditors may wish to see tax returns even after the IRS no longer does.

What is the "Period of Limitations" for a Tax Return?

Generally, you must keep records that support income and deductions for a tax return until the "period of limitations" for that return elapses. This is the period during which you can still amend your return to get a refund or credit and during which the IRS can still assess more tax. It varies depending on the circumstances surrounding each return.

  • If you owe additional tax, but you haven't seriously underpaid, committed fraud, or failed to file a return, the period is 3 years from the date taxes were filed.
  • If you failed to report income that you should have reported, in excess of 25% of the gross income that you did report, the period is 6 years.
  • If you filed a claim for credit or refund after you filed your return, the period is the later of 3 years after the return was filed or 2 years after tax was paid.
  • If you filed a claim for a loss from worthless securities or a bad debt deduction, the period is 7 years.
  • If you filed a fraudulent return or failed to file a return, the period is unlimited.

Note: Returns filed before taxes are due are treated as though they were filed on the due date.

Other Periods of Limitations

Additionally, if you are an employer, you must keep employee tax records for at least 4 years after the later of the date the tax becomes due or the date it is paid.

For assets, you should keep records until the period of limitations elapses for the year in which you sell the property in a taxable transaction. You will need records to compute depreciation, amortization, or depletion deductions and to add up your basis in the property for purposes of calculating gain or loss. A business law attorney experienced in tax matters can further guide you in relation to your specific situation


Monday, February 16, 2015

Can You Sue if You Signed A Liability Waiver?

You might be asked to sign a liability waiver before engaging in a recreational activity.  For some endeavors that seem naturally dangerous, this will come as no surprise.  But, in day to day life, you might come in to contact with liability waivers on a more frequent basis than you expect.  You might be asked to sign a liability waiver when engaging in certain sports, such as skiing, watching certain live sporting events and even when signing up for a gym membership.  While signing the waiver is often a prerequisite to participation, you should know that these agreements are not always enforced from a legal standpoint.   Therefore, if you or your loved one is injured after signing one you still have a chance of recovering for your injuries. 

 A liability waiver is an agreement between two parties, wherein one party agrees to release another party from responsibility should the first party suffer some injury at the second party’s fault.  In the context of everyday recreational activities, the participating party is assuming the risk of injury from the hosting party and in some cases, giving up their right to sue altogether.  One type of contract that might qualify as a liability waiver is a contract of adhesion.  A contract of adhesion is a boilerplate form that is presented to a party who has no opportunity to negotiate the terms.  An example of this type of agreement is a preprinted waiver on the back of a receipt.

Although these agreements are very common, they can be invalidated based on certain factors.  Each state has a different take on liability waivers, and therefore the law varies greatly across the country.  Some state courts strictly enforce these agreements while others seem to disfavor them.  Most courts look at a combination of factors including how the document was drafted and the circumstances surrounding its signing.  Courts will inquire as to the nature of the document.  They favor documents that are clear and unambiguous and that include terms that a reasonable person would understand.  They also look at whether the waiver was obvious or evident.  Was the waiver presented to the party or was it hidden on the back of a ticket stub?  Courts favor an obvious approach.  As far as the circumstances surrounding the signing of the agreement, the courts will try to discover whether it was entered into voluntarily.  If someone was forced to enter into the agreement, it will likely not be upheld.  Lastly, any agreement that violates public policy in some way will usually be invalidated by a court. 

If you signed a liability waiver, but were subsequently injured, and want to know if you have a chance to recover in a personal injury action, contact us today for a case evaluation today. 

 


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Gifting to Grandchildren

Issues to Consider When Gifting to Grandchildren

Many grandparents who are financially stable love the idea of making gifts to their grandchildren. However, they are usually not aware of the myriad of issues that surround what they may consider to be a simple gift. If you are considering making a significant gift to a grandchild, you should consult with a qualified attorney to guide you through the myriad of legal and tax issues that are involved in making such gifts.

Making a Lifetime Gift or a Bequest:  Before making a gift, you should consider whether you want to make the gift during your lifetime or leave the gift in your will. If you make the gift as a bequest in your will, you will not experience the joy of seeing your grandchild’s appreciation and use of the gift. However, there’s always the possibility that you will need the money to live on during your lifetime, and in reality, once a gift is made it cannot be taken back. Also, if you anticipate needing Medicaid or other government programs to pay for a nursing home or other benefits at some point in your life, any gifts you make in the prior five years can be considered as part of your assets when determining your eligibility.

What Form Gift Should Take:  You may consider making a gift outright to a grandchild. However, once such a gift is made, you give up control over how the funds can be used. If your grandchild decides to purchase a brand-new sports car or take an extravagant vacation, you will have no legal right to stop the grandchild. The grandchild’s parents could also in some cases access the money without your approval.

You could consider making a gift under the Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or the Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA), depending on which state you live in. The accounts are easy to open, but once the grandchild reaches the age of majority, he or she will have unfettered access to the funds. You could also consider depositing money into a 529 plan, which is specifically designed for education purposes. Finally, you could consider establishing a trust with an estate planning attorney, which can be more expensive to set up, but can be customized to fit your needs. Such a trust can provide for spendthrift, divorce and creditor protection while allowing for more flexibility for expenditures such as education or purchase of a first home.

Tax Consequences: If you have a large estate, giving gifts to grandchildren may be a great way to get money out of your estate in order to reduce your future estate tax liability. In 2011 and 2012, a single person can pass $5 million at death free of estate tax, and a couple can pass a combined $10 million without paying estate taxes. In addition, a person can give $13,000 in 2011 to any number of individuals without incurring any gift taxes. A grandparent with 10 grandchildren could give $130,000 per year to all grandchildren (and a married couple could give $260,000), thereby removing that property from his or her estate.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Can My Employer Enforce a Covenant Not to Compete?

Can My Employer Enforce a Covenant Not to Compete?

Many employers require their employees to sign agreements which contain covenants not to compete with the company.  The enforceability of these restrictive provisions varies from state-to-state and depends on a variety of factors. A former employee who violates an enforceable non-compete agreement may be ordered to cease competitive activity and pay damages to the former employer.  In other covenants, the restrictions may be deemed too restrictive and an undue restraint of trade.

A covenant not to compete is a promise by an employee that he or she will not compete with his or her employer for a specified period of time and/or within a particular geographic location. It may be contained within an employment agreement, or may be a separate contract. Agreements which prevent employees from competing with the employer while employed are enforceable in every jurisdiction. However, agreements which affect an employee’s conduct after employment termination are subject to stricter requirements regarding “reasonableness,” and are generally disallowed in some states, such as California which has enacted statutes against such agreements except in very narrow circumstances.

Even in states where such covenants are enforceable, courts generally disfavor them because they are anti-competitive. Nevertheless, such agreements will be enforced if the former employer can demonstrate the following:
 

  • The employee received consideration at the time the agreement was signed;
  • The agreement protects the employers legitimate business interest; and
  • The agreement is reasonable to protect the employer, but not unduly burdensome to the employee who has a right to make a living.

Consideration

Under the principles of contract law, all agreements must be supported by consideration in order to be enforceable. The employee signing the covenant not to compete must receive something of value in exchange for making the promise. If the agreement is signed prior to employment, the employment itself constitutes consideration. If, however, the agreement is signed after employment commences, the employee must receive something else of value in exchange for the agreement to be enforceable.

Legitimate Business Interest

Legitimate business interests can include protecting and preserving confidential information (trade secrets) and customer relationships. Most states recognize an employer’s right to prevent an employee from taking advantage of information acquired or relationships developed as a result of the employment arrangement, in order to later compete against the employer.

Reasonableness

Based on the circumstances, a covenant must be reasonably necessary. If the covenant is overly broad, or unduly burdensome on the employee, the court may refuse to enforce the agreement. Therefore, the covenant must be reasonable in both duration and scope. If a covenant is overly broad, the court may narrow its scope or duration and enforce it accordingly. But if a covenant is so broad that is clearly was designed to prevent lawful competition, as opposed to protecting legitimate business interests, the court may strike down the agreement in its entirety.

To enforce a covenant not to compete, the employer can file a court action seeking an injunction against the employee’s continued violations of the agreement. The company can also seek monetary damages to cover losses resulting from the employee’s breach.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Defensive Medicine

Defensive Medicine: Many Doctors “Over-Treat” Patients Due to Fear of Medical Malpractice Claims

The skyrocketing cost of medical malpractice insurance premiums has changed the way many physicians practice medicine, prompting some to refuse certain patients with complex medical problems or to order unnecessary tests on other patients. Such “defensive medicine” can involve unwarranted lab tests or x-rays or even more invasive procedures to help ensure “certainty” regarding a diagnosis. Even more troubling for the most vulnerable patients, defensive medicine can result in a surgeon’s refusal to perform a complex operation on a sick patient for fear of a negative outcome and eventual malpractice lawsuit.

A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine revealed that many patients receive “too much” medical care and treatment. The study found that 42 percent of American primary care physicians believe that patients receive more aggressive medical care than is necessary. The study also revealed that many doctors feel they must provide “excessive care” to patients, due in large part, to concerns about being the subject of medical malpractice claims.

The study involved 627 physicians, most of whom had practiced medicine for nearly 25 years. Of the doctors surveyed, just 6 percent expressed concern that patients were receiving too little care. Most doctors reason that they could risk medical malpractice lawsuits if they fail to take every conceivable measure to cure or prevent an illness. They admitted over-treating and over-testing, in order to attain clinical performance standards, despite the small amount of time they have to actually consult with each patient.

The vast majority of physicians surveyed – 83 percent – believe they could be sued if they opted not to order every test that is indicated for a particular situation. On the other hand, just over 1 in 5 doctors believe they could be sued for ordering an unnecessary test.

Nearly half of the survey respondents reported that nurse practitioners and physician assistants provided more aggressive treatment than primary care doctors, and 61 percent indicated that subspecialists also provide more aggressive treatment. Experts believe that defensive medicine could be mitigated if doctors more effectively communicated with their patients about their illness and the pros and cons of various tests.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Considering Online Estate Planning?

Considering Online Estate Planning? Think Twice

The recent proliferation of online estate planning document services has attracted many do-it-yourselfers who are lured in by what appears to be a low-cost solution. However, this focus on price over value could mean your wishes will not be carried out and, unfortunately, nobody will know there is a problem until it is too late and you are no longer around to clean up the mess.

Probate, trusts and intestate succession (when someone dies without leaving a will) are governed by a network of laws which vary from state to state, as well as federal laws pertaining to inheritance and tax issues. Each jurisdiction has its own requirements, and failure to adhere to all of them could invalidate your estate planning documents. Many online document services offer standardized legal forms for common estate planning tools including wills, trusts or powers of attorney. However, it is impossible to draft a legal document that covers all variations from one state to another, and using a form or procedure not specifically designed to comply with the laws in your jurisdiction could invalidate the entire process.

Another risk involves the process by which the documents you purchased online are executed and witnessed or notarized. These requirements vary, and if your state’s signature and witness requirements are not followed exactly at the time the will or other documents are executed, they could be found to be invalid. Of course, this finding would only be made long after you have passed, so you cannot express your wishes or revise the documents to be in compliance.

Additionally, the online document preparation process affords you absolutely no specific advice about what is best for you and your family. An estate planning attorney can help your heirs avoid probate altogether, maximize tax savings, and arrange for seamless transfer of assets through other means, including titling property in joint tenancy or establishing “pay on death” or “transfer on death” beneficiaries for certain assets, such as bank accounts, retirement accounts or vehicles. In many states, living trusts are the recommended vehicle for transferring assets, allowing the estate to avoid probate. Trusts are also advantageous in that they protect the privacy of you and your family; they are not public records, whereas documents filed with the court in a probate proceeding are publicly viewable. There are other factors to consider, as well, which can only be identified and addressed by an attorney; no online resource can flag all potential concerns and provide you with appropriate recommendations.

By implementing the correct plan now, you will save your loved ones time, frustration and potentially a great deal of money. In most cases, proper estate planning that is tailored to your specific situation can avoid probate altogether, and ensure the transfer of your property happens quickly and with a minimum amount of paperwork. If your estate is large, it may be subject to inheritance tax unless the proper estate planning measures are put in place. A qualified estate planning attorney can provide you with recommendations that will preserve as much of your estate as possible, so it can be distributed to your beneficiaries. And that’s something no website can deliver.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Overview of Life Estates

Overview of Life Estates

Establishing a Life Estate is a relatively simple process in which you transfer your property to your children, while retaining your right to use and live in the property. Life Estates are used to avoid probate, maximize tax benefits and protect the real property from potential long-term care expenses you may incur in your later years. Transferring property into a Life Estate avoids some of the disadvantages of making an outright gift of property to your heirs. However, it is not right for everyone and comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Life Estates establish two different categories of property owners: the Life Tenant Owner and the Remainder Owner. The Life Tenant Owner maintains the absolute and exclusive right to use the property during his or her lifetime. This can be a sole owner or joint Life Tenants. Life Tenant(s) maintain responsibility for property taxes, insurance and maintenance. Life Tenant(s) are also entitled to rent out the property and to receive all income generated by the property.

Remainder Owner(s) automatically take legal ownership of the property immediately upon the death of the last Life Tenant. Remainder Owners have no right to use the property or collect income generated by the property, and are not responsible for taxes, insurance or maintenance, as long as the Life Tenant is still alive.

Advantages

  • Life Estates are simple and inexpensive to establish; merely requiring that a new Deed be recorded.
  • Life Estates avoid probate; the property automatically transfers to your heirs upon the death of the last surviving Life Tenant.
  • Transferring title following your death is a simple, quick process.
  • Life Tenant’s right to use and occupy property is protected; a Remainder Owner’s problems (financial or otherwise) do not affect the Life Tenant’s absolute right to the property during your lifetime.
  • Favorable tax treatment upon the death of a Life Tenant; when property is titled this way, your heirs enjoy a stepped-up tax basis, as of the date of death, for capital gains purposes.
  • Property owned via a Life Estate is typically protected from Medicaid claims once 60 months have elapsed after the date of transfer into the Life Estate. After that five-year period, the property is protected against Medicaid liens to pay for end-of-life care.

Disadvantages

  • Medicaid; that 60-month waiting period referenced above also means that the Life Tenants are subject to a 60-month disqualification period for Medicaid purposes. This period begins on the date the property is transferred into the Life Estate.
  • Potential income tax consequences if the property is sold while the Life Tenant is still alive; Life Tenants do not receive the full income tax exemption normally available when a personal residence is sold. Remainder Owners receive no such exemption, so any capital gains tax would likely be due from the Remainder Owner’s proportionate share of proceeds from the sale.
  • In order to sell the property, all owners must agree and sign the Deed, including Life Tenants and Remainder Owners; Life Tenant’s lose the right of sole control over the property.
  • Transfer into a Life Estate is irrevocable; however if all Life Tenants and Remainder Owners agree, a change can be made but may be subject to negative tax or Medicaid consequences.

Friday, August 15, 2014

C-Corporation Vs. S-Corporation

C-Corporation Vs. S-Corporation: Which Structure Provides the Best Tax Advantages for Your Business?

The difference between a C-Corporation and an S-Corporation is in the way each is taxed. Under the law, a corporation is considered to be an artificial person. Shareholders who work for the corporation are employees; they are not “self-employed” as far as the tax authorities are concerned.

The C-Corporation

In theory, before a C-corporation distributes profits to shareholders, it must pay tax on the income at the corporate rate. Then, leftover profits are distributed to the shareholders as dividends, which are then treated as investment income and taxed to the shareholder. This is the “double taxation” you may have heard about.

C-Corporations enjoy many tax-related advantages :

  • Income splitting is the division of income between the corporation and its shareholders in a way that lowers overall taxes, and can avoid or significantly reduce the potential impact of “double taxation.” By working with a knowledgeable tax advisor, you can determine exactly how much money the corporation should pay you as an employee to ensure the lowest tax bill at the end of the year.
  • C-Corporations enjoy a wider range of deductible expenses such as those for healthcare and education.  
  • A shareholder can borrow up to $10,000 from a C-Corporation, interest-free. Tax-free loans are not available to sole proprietors, partners, LLC members or S-Corporation shareholders.

S-Corporation
S-Corporations pass income through to their shareholders who pay tax on it according to their individual income tax rates. To qualify for S-Corporation status, the corporation must have less than 100 shareholders; all shareholders must be individual U.S. citizens, resident aliens, other S-Corporations, or an electing small business trust; the corporation may have only one class of stock; and all shareholders must consent in writing to the S-Corporation status.

Depending on your situation, an S-Corporation may be more advantageous:

  • Electing S-Corporation tax treatment eliminates any possibility of the “double taxation” referenced above. S-Corporations pay no federal corporate income tax, but must file annual tax returns. Because losses also flow through, shareholders who are active in the business can take most business operating losses on their individual tax returns.
  • S-Corporations must still file and pay employment taxes on employees, as with a C-Corporation. An S-Corporation may not retain earnings for future growth without the shareholders paying tax on them. The taxable profits of an S-Corporation pass through to the shareholders in the year they are earned.
  • S-Corporations cannot provide the full range of fringe benefits that a C-Corporation can.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How are Damages Calculated in Personal Injury Cases?

How are Damages Calculated in Personal Injury Cases?

If you have been injured as a result of someone else’s negligent conduct, you may be considering a lawsuit to recover compensation. The compensation awarded to you, called “damages,” falls within two categories: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are designed to compensate the plaintiff for actual losses sustained, and are further divided into “special damages” and “general damages.”

Special damages are those fixed amounts relating to your actual losses, such as medical expenses, lost income or costs to repair your property. General damages, on the other hand, include non-monetary losses, such as “pain and suffering”, your decreased ability to perform certain functions, or the loss of a loved one. Punitive damages, sometimes called exemplary damages, are designed to punish a defendant or deter similar conduct in the future.

The damages to which you are entitled are typically calculated based on the severity of your injuries, the underlying circumstances of the incident in question, and whether the case settles or proceeds to a trial. The following factors are typically considered:

  • Medical treatment expenses
  • Estimated costs of future medical treatment or therapy
  • Past lost wages or income
  • Future lost wages or income
  • Costs to repair or replace damaged property
  • Your out-of-pocket expenses, such as insurance deductibles or copayments
  • Rental car expenses
  • Funeral expenses, in wrongful death cases
  • Emotional distress
  • Pain and suffering
  • Punitive damages, if the underlying act was particularly egregious or intentional

In the American legal system, damages are intended to compensate the plaintiff sufficiently to make him or her “whole,” i.e. restore the plaintiff to the same position he or she was in prior to the accident or injury. If you mediate your dispute or otherwise settle it out of court, the parties and lawyers will negotiate each item and come to an agreement. If your case is tried in a court, the judge or jury will calculate how much you are entitled to receive, based on the evidence presented at trial.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Bypass Trusts

Changing Uses for Bypass Trusts

Every year, each individual who dies in the U.S. can leave a certain amount of money to his or her heirs before facing any federal estate taxes. For example, in 2013, a person who died could leave $5.25 million to his or her heirs (or a charity) estate tax free, and everything over that amount would be taxable by the federal government. Transfers at death to a spouse are not taxable.

Therefore, if a husband died owning $8 million in assets in 2013 and passed everything to his wife, that transfer was not taxable because transfers to spouses at death are not taxable. However, if the wife died later that year owning that $8 million in assets, everything over $5.25 million (her exemption amount) would be taxable by the federal government. Couples would effectively have the use of only one exemption amount unless they did some special planning, or left a chunk of their property to someone other than their spouse.

Estate tax law provided a tool called “bypass trusts” that would allow a spouse to leave an inheritance to the surviving spouse in a special trust. That trust would be taxable and would use up the exemption amount of the first spouse to die. However, the remaining spouse would be able to use the property in that bypass trust to live on, and would also have the use of his or her exemption amount when he or she passed. This planning technique effectively allowed couples to combine their exemption amounts.

For the year 2013, each person who dies can pass $5.25 million free from federal estate taxes.  This exemption amount is adjusted for inflation every year.  In addition, spouses can combine their exemption amounts without requiring a bypass trust (making the exemptions “portable” between spouses). This change in the law appears to make bypass trusts useless, at least until Congress decides to remove the portability provision from the estate tax law.

However, bypass trusts can still be valuable in many situations, such as:

(1)  Remarriage or blended families. You may be concerned that your spouse will remarry and cut the children out of the will after you are gone. Or, you may have a blended family and you may fear that your spouse will disinherit your children in favor of his or her children after you pass. A bypass trust would allow the surviving spouse to have access to the money to live on during life, while providing that everything goes to the children at the surviving spouse’s death.

(2)  State estate taxes. Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia have state estate taxes. If you live in one of those states, a bypass trust may be necessary to combine a couple’s exemptions from state estate tax.

(3)  Changes in the estate tax law. Estate tax laws have been in flux over the past several years. What if you did an estate plan assuming that bypass trusts were unnecessary, Congress removed the portability provision, and you neglected to update your estate plan? You could be paying thousands or even millions of dollars in taxes that you could have saved by using a bypass trust.

(4)  Protecting assets from creditors. If you leave a large inheritance outright to your spouse and children, and a creditor appears on the scene, the creditor may be able to seize all the money. Although many people think that will not happen to their family, divorces, bankruptcies, personal injury lawsuits, and hard economic times can unexpectedly result in a large monetary judgment against a family member.

Although it may appear that bypass trusts have lost their usefulness, there are still many situations in which they can be invaluable tools to help families avoid estate taxes.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Tenant-in-Common Investments

The Risks of Tenant-in-Common Investments

Historically, tenant in common (TIC) projects were owned by a relatively small group of investors who knew each other, such as long-time friends, business partners or family members. Strategies to maximize tax savings and preserve equity typically guided investors to this type of structure, rather than creating a limited liability company or partnership to own the property.

In the late 1990s, real estate sales in the form of tax-deferred 1031 exchanges created a new industry. Promoters began soliciting and pooling funds from investors to purchase real estate. Participation in the pool helped investors find replacement property to guarantee their capital gains tax deferment continued.

In 2002, the IRS clarified when this type of pooling is considered a partnership interest as opposed to a TIC interest, a critical distinction for investors using funds from a 1031 exchange transaction. Following that, investments in TIC interests grew considerably due to the numerous advantages. For those who needed a place to invest their 1031 exchange funds quickly, TIC interests provide a relatively simple way to ensure the funds are spent within 180 days of the sale of the previous property, without the hassle of researching, investigating, negotiating and financing a property in less than six months. TIC investors do not have to burden themselves with the day-to-day management of their investment property. Finally, TIC investors can pool their resources to purchase fractional shares of investment-grade property which would otherwise be out of reach.

With all of its advantages, the TIC interest also carries its share of risks. For example, many TIC promoters charged fees that were excessive, or sold the property to the investors for more than it was worth. If property values decline or purchase loans mature, it may be difficult to refinance, forcing the property into foreclosure and taking the entire investment with it.

Other promoters failed to maintain reserve funds separate for each property. If a promoter filed for bankruptcy and did not properly use the reserve funds, TIC investors were left with no recourse and were forced to cover the reserves out of their own pockets or risk losing their investment.

Further risks are caused by the investors themselves and the nature of their relationship to one another – or lack thereof. Owners of TIC typically do not know each other. Decisions regarding TIC governance often require unanimous agreement by all owners, and just one objection can grind the action to a halt. When owners don’t know each other, or are spread across many states, it can be difficult to communicate and obtain a unanimous agreement.

Despite the risks, TIC interests can still be a good place to park your money – but you must be a cautious, diligent purchaser. Visit the property, seek information from sources other than the promoter, and carefully review the past and projected financial data.
 


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