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The Top 5 Ways Businesses Get in Trouble With the IRS

« Back to Business Tax

As a small business owner, you probably know that willfully avoiding paying taxes will lead to severe problems with the IRS; however, IRS problems aren’t always a result of a business owner’s intentional actions. These are five ways business owners can get into trouble with the IRS that they might overlook or not realize.

1. Under-Reporting Income

All business income must be reported to the IRS. Even if you are a freelancer, receive contract payments, or are paid in cash, you must let the IRS know or risk hefty fines and penalties on top of the tax you owe on that income. Some individual self-employed people fail to pay taxes – either due to lack of knowledge about tax laws or evasion – and do not realize they are responsible for up to six years of back tax returns. Take note that if you do need to file back tax returns, many deductions are not claimable on more than the most recent three returns. Additional years, up to six, must be filed; however, the benefit of deductions is lost beyond three years.

2. Over-Reporting Expenses

Keep business expenses separate, preferably paid from a separate account and with a separate credit card, so that your expenses do not get mixed in with those for your business. The most common over-reported expenses are private travel being claimed and business travel and private miles driven and claimed as business miles. If you’re not sure what qualifies as an actual business expense, consult with your tax preparer or accountant. For a business expense to be deductible, it must be ordinary and necessary. An “ordinary” expense is common and accepted in your business; a “necessary” expense is helpful and appropriate for your business. Expenses like the cost of goods sold (for manufacturing businesses) and capital expenses (costs that are part of your investment in your business) are figured separately from business expenses.

3. Failing to Report “Trust Fund Taxes”

As an employer, you must withhold taxes from employee earnings. Those taxes are not paid to employees as wages and are held “in trust” until paid to the U.S. Treasury. Thus, the name “trust fund taxes.” These are income tax, Social Security, and Medicare taxes (aka “withholdings”). Sales tax is also considered a “trust fund” tax since it is collected from someone else like a customer or client and held until paid to the Treasury. These taxes must be paid and reported to the proper taxing authority and cannot be used for operating or financing a business. If they are, and they are not reported, it is considered tax fraud.

4. Forgetting the Self-Employment Tax

Just like an employer must withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes from employees, if you are self-employed, you must pay self-employment (SE) tax, consisting of Social Security and Medicare taxes, to the Treasury. The SE tax is 15.3 percent (12.4 percent for social security (old-age, survivors, and disability insurance) and 2.9 percent for Medicare (hospital insurance) of net self-employment income in addition to income taxes. That means it is calculated after expenses are deducted. Note that SE tax does not include any other taxes that self-employed individuals may be required to file, so these individuals must consult their tax preparer or accountant to be sure they are paying all the required taxes. Also, self-employed individuals can deduct the employer-equivalent portion of the SE tax when calculating their adjusted gross income (AGI). Also, keep in mind that the tax is paid only on net self-employment earnings, that is, income after expenses are deducted.

5. Not Paying Estimated Quarterly Taxes

As a small business owner, you do not have taxes withheld from a formal paycheck as wage-earning employees do. However, that does not mean there are no taxes due to the IRS. If a small business owner anticipates a tax liability of $1,000 or more, they must send estimated quarterly tax payments to the IRS. Not doing so can lead to a whopping end-of-year tax bill with penalties, too.


Again, as mentioned above, consult your tax preparer or trusted accountant to help you make sure you stay in the clear with the IRS.


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