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Tax tips for small businesses

| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

NEW YORK — Blood pressures are rising at many small businesses now that tax season is under way.

Although many owners hire accountants and attorneys to complete their income tax returns, taxes are a hassle. In a survey released last year by the advocacy group National Small Business Association, nearly 60 percent of the owners surveyed said the administrative burdens were the biggest problems posed by federal taxes. And 85 percent of the more than 675 owners said they relied on a professional to prepare their returns.

Owners can make the process easier by being organized and watching out for tax pitfalls, accountants say. Here are four tax issues small business owners should be thinking about now and year-round:

Record-keeping matters

Haphazard or incomplete records are one of the biggest problems accountants see at small businesses. Rather than using accounting software year-round, owners stuff receipts and bank statements into file folders and then have to sort them as the tax deadline approaches.

Using accounting software to organize records will ease the process and help guard against costly errors, says Scott Berger, an accountant with the firm Kaufman Rossin in Boca Raton, Fla.

He noted that checking accounts can be linked to the software, cutting down on data entry. Financial records can also be linked with tax preparation software, shortening the time it takes to compile a return. It may be too late to get your records into an accounting program for 2015, but owners should get started for 2016 before more time passes, Berger says.

Another reason for keeping good records: Owners need to provide financial numbers for potential lenders or investors.

“It's in their best interest if they want to take their business to the next level,” Berger says.

Teachable moment

Many owners don't bother to ask for a copy of their tax returns, says Emilio Escandon, an accountant with Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra in New York. That's a bad idea — a tax return is like a report card, providing a snapshot of how a business is doing, he says.

“You should go through that report card and see where you can improve,” Escandon says.

Reviewing the return and discussing it with an accountant can also help an owner plan for the future. For example, if a business suffers a loss, it may not be a one-year event; the loss can also be carried forward, Escandon says.

“You should always have a forward-looking approach,” he says. Owners should also know that their prior-year returns can be amended to take advantage of a loss.

Employees and freelancers

Small businesses that hire freelancers need to be sure these workers are truly independent and shouldn't be classified as employees. Many companies use freelancers because they don't want obligations like Social Security and Medicare taxes or providing health insurance. But under the law, freelancers can't be treated like employees in terms of what they do and how much control a boss has over them. The Internal Revenue Service and state tax officials are paying closer attention to how workers are classified, looking to catch businesses violating the law, says Michael Greenwald, an accountant with Friedman LLP in New York.

Companies must give W-2 forms to employees and 1099s to freelancers detailing 2015 compensation by Feb. 1. Freelancers, many of whom are small business owners themselves, should be sure they get 1099s from everyone they worked for in the previous year. The IRS will match the 1099 copies it gets against the income you've reported, and if you failed to include any income, you'll hear from the agency.

Home office and car

The deduction for using part of your home as an office has long been a point of contention between owners and the IRS. If an owner uses half the family room to run the business, the government won't allow a home office deduction. A home office must be a separate space used solely for business purposes.

“You could theoretically go to the extent of putting up a partition to wall it off,” Greenwald says.

But the reality is the IRS won't know whether you have a separate office unless your return is audited and an IRS agent visits your home.

On the other hand, the government recognizes that owners use cars for personal and business use. But owners must keep a diary of how many miles they drive for business each day, and calculate their deduction based on that amount. Many owners as they juggle work and family probably don't keep those records, Berger says. The answer, as in keeping a company's books, may lie in technology; there are smartphone apps like TripLog to help owners track business mileage.

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