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If you’re thinking about starting up, you must carefully consider whether to form a limited company straight away or hold off for a while and become a sole trader. 

You may think forming a limited company will save you tax and must therefore be the best route.  However, many start-ups incur considerable costs in their initial months. And even if you do not have sizeable initial outgoings, you should still factor in a realistic margin for error in your budgeting. 

You will more than likely have a “learning curve cost” if this is your first time in business or if you’re going to be operating within a sector of which you have no prior experience. In either case, you should not expect the same return straight away as your more experienced competitors. 

If you make a loss as a sole trader, it can be set against your employment income for previous years, which in all likelihood will give you a handy refund after the first tax year. If you make a loss as a limited company, it can only be carried forward and set against future the company’s profits.  If the company never makes a profit, it will be wasted.

Even if you’re more confident that your business plan will be a success, you may still profit from waiting until you form a company. As a sole trader, you can build up custom, contacts, brand awareness and reputation in the business. From a tax point of view, this goodwill can be sold to the company. Future drawings from the company can be taken in the form of a director’s loan repayment, which will be especially beneficial if you expect to be paying tax at a higher rate.

You can set up as a sole trader by simply telephoning HMRC or registering online, whereas the route for a company formation is more complex.  Ongoing accountancy costs are bound to be higher and Companies House will publish your company’s financial results for anyone to see – including your competitors, suppliers and potential clients.

Yes, if your salary and dividends are organised properly, a company can save you considerable tax. It can also limit your liability to company debts. But the decision is not so straightforward. If you want to protect your trading name, you can always form the company and leave it dormant at Companies House until you are ready to start trading.

A limited company can save you tax in certain situations, but it is not always the best way to start out. A brief review of the options with your accountant could save you time and money in the long run.

  • Raphael Coman is the owner-manager of chartered certified accountants Coman & Co.

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We’ve seen many new taxes come in under the radar over the past few years, but for me, this is probably the most badly thought-out, badly communicated of the lot. And once again, it’s being left to accountants and tax advisors to communicate the bad news.

If you employ staff, you’ll be familiar with the need to pay monthly PAYE and NI contributions to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) by the 19th of the following month.

Up until now, the legislation has been such that if you pay late, it doesn’t really matter. HMRC might write nasty letters – or even send someone round – but ultimately, there was no penalty for paying late. The trick was to get everything square by 19 May annually, and there was no comeback.

This changed on 6 April this year, when the new legislation came into effect.

Here is a brief synopsis of the new rules and penalties for those on the main monthly scheme:

  • pay your monthly liability by the 19th of the month following (this is the date by which the funds must be deposited in the bank account at HMRC – so beware of paying online on the 19th. Confirm with your bank that it will get there on time);
  • pay late once in any year and there’s no penalty – unless the payment is more than six months late – see below;
  • pay late two-four times in any year, you’ll be fined 1% of the total amount that is late (ignoring the first late payment), so, if your monthly payment is £10,000 and on four occasions you’re a day late paying, the penalty will be 3 x £10,000 x 1% = £300;
  • pay late five-seven times and you’ll be fined 2% of the total amount that is late (ignoring the first late payment);
  • pay late eight-ten times and you’ll be fined 3% of the total amount that is late (ignoring the first late payment);
  • pay late 11-12 times and you’ll be fined 4% of the total amount that is late (ignoring the first late payment);
  • if any payment is more than six months late, you’ll have a pay a penalty of 5% of the overdue amount. If the payment is 12 months late, you will pay a further 5%.

No due reflection is given to the extent to which you’re late. If you are one day late, the penalty will apply.

From an administrative point of view, the law allows HMRC to charge penalties at any stage during the tax year, or after the end of the tax year up to two years of the due date.

In 2010-11, penalties will be charged after the end of the tax year. Therefore, penalty notices will not be sent out until April or May 2011. So please don’t test the system and think you’ve got away with it – you will get a nasty shock in April next year!

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With the general election imminent, it’s hard not to see the most recent budget as strongly political. A number of tax incentives were announced, mainly to benefit the largest groups of taxpayers, but paid for by rises affecting the wealthy.

There were no further announcements on income tax, National Insurance or VAT. Although, as previously announced, a 50 per cent top rate of income tax will be introduced from 6 April 2010 on incomes of more than £150,000. On the same date, a reduction in personal allowances will start on incomes of more than £100,000. Finally, a 1 per cent increase in National Insurance is due to take effect from 6 April 2011.

First-time buyers escape stamp duty

The stamp duty threshold will be raised for first-time buyers from £125,000 to £250,000. As the threshold was raised at midnight last night, almost all affected buyers who have not yet exchanged will benefit. The stamp duty rise will take effect for the next two years, and could result in tax savings of up to £2,500, compared with the previous threshold.

Wealthier homeowners will fund the rise. There will be a permanent increase in stamp duty from 4 per cent to 5 per cent on house purchases over £1m.

Tip: Where possible, consider negotiating the asking price to below the threshold by negotiating extras such as curtains or garden furniture in a separate deal.

Good news for SMEs

From October, there will be a business rates cut. This will result in an exemption for properties with a rateable value of less then £6,000 and an increase in small business rates relief for properties with a value between £6,001 and £11,999.

The annual investment allowance will be doubled to £100,000. The relief – which allows a 100 per cent tax deduction for new capital expenditure – will be welcome by small and medium-sized businesses in particular.

The lifetime limit for entrepreneur’s relief will be doubled, with the effect that the first £2m (previously the first £1m) of gains will be taxed at an effective rate of 10 per cent. Contrary to wide predictions, Capital Gains Tax did not rise with the Budget, but will remain at its historically low level of 18 per cent.

Tip: It continues to be a good time for businesses to invest in growth. The difference between the top rate on income tax at 50 per cent and Capital Gains Tax rate at 18 per cent provides a clear incentive for investment in business expansion.

The Chancellor announced a 15 per cent increase in the number of government contracts that will be awarded to SMEs.

The two state-subsidised banks, RBS and Lloyds, will lend a further £94bn, of which at least half will be to small and medium-sized firms.

The Chancellor will set up an investment bank with £2 billion of equity to invest in low carbon industries such as wind farms.

The planned hike in petrol duty by 3 pence will be staggered, so that there will be a 1 pence rise in April, a further 1 pence rise in October and the final 1 pence rise in January 2011.

Good news for savers

As announced in the pre-budget report, the ISA limit will be raised from £7,200 to £10,200 from 6 April. The Chancellor also announced in this Budget that the limit will rise in future years in line with inflation.

Tip: If you have not yet used your ISA allowance there are just a few days before the end of the tax year to use the allowance before it is lost.

The wealthiest targeted

The one-off 50 per cent tax on bank bonuses has raised more than £2bn – double the amount forecast. Further attempts to increase tax revenue from higher income groups were also announced.

The inheritance tax thresholds will be frozen for four years at £325,000. If there is inflation, this will amount to a real term reduction in the threshold.

There will a crackdown on tax avoidance through agreements made with Dominica, Grenada and Belize.

Tax credits rise

Families with one and two-year-olds will receive an additional £4 per week in child tax credit from 2012. The number of hours needed to qualify for working tax credit will be cut for the over 60s.

Tip: Consider making a protective claim for tax credits. Your tax credits claim is based on the prior year unless there is an increase in your income of more than £25,000. Alternatively, you can claim for your assessment to be made on your current income level. Careful planning can ensure you derive the maximum benefit from the system.

The tax system is constantly changing and it is important to review your investment plans, cashflow forecasts and wealth management in the light of new rules and regulations.

Raphael Coman, founder of south London-based Coman & Co, is a chartered certified accountant with many years’ experience gained at leading, national accounting firms. He specialises in taxation and small business accounting and offers personal tax advice to business owners, managers and contractors.

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Planning before the end of your accounting year could reduce your tax bill and improve your cashflow. With 5 April fast approaching and many start-ups reaching the end of their year on 31 March, here are my ten tips for year-end tax planning:

  1. Bring forward costs and get tax relief a year earlier. Be careful though, because some expenses have to be spread over tax years, even if you paid for them now. Also keep in mind that tax rates are increasing next tax year, especially for higher income groups.
  2. Make your investment in the business before the year-end and enjoy the reduction in your tax liability a year sooner. Businesses are still entitled to 100 per cent tax relief on most capital expenditure of up to £50,000 per year.
  3. Delay invoices. If possible, plan larger jobs until after the year-end and you will delay payment of tax thereon for a further year. Be careful though, because you must account for tax on fees built up through work in progress.
  4. Value stock. Now is the time to do a stock take to assess write-offs. Stock is valued at the lower of its cost and its net realisable value.
  5. Consider changing your year-end. If your profits have been going down recently, then you could benefit from extending your year-end towards 31 March. If profits improve over the next twelve months, you will delay tax on these profits. Moreover, any profits you made when you started the business could be offset to further reduce your tax bill.
  6. Plan when to take profits out of the company. Any profits for the current year, plus any undrawn profits for previous years, can be taken as a dividend. If you are already a higher taxpayer this tax year, you could delay paying a dividend. If you may become a higher taxpayer next year, you could bring forward the payment. If your spouse is a shareholder in the business, effectively, you have two lots of personal allowance and basic rate to keep taxes low across the family.
  7. Use your ISA allowance. Up to £10,200 for the over-50s and up to £7,200 can be invested in an ISA for the year to 5 April 2010. Income and gains in an ISA are tax-free. Any unused allowance cannot be carried forward, so there are only a few days left to take advantage of the allowance.
  8. Realise capital gains. You can realise capital gains of £10,100 each tax year before you are liable to pay tax. A capital gain could arise on your shares, second home or buy-to-let property.
  9. Be aware that it is widely predicted that taxes will rise with this year’s budget. Capital gains tax is at a historically low level of 18 per cent, and many are predicting that it will increase to 25 per cent or more. Cashing in your investments or transferring them to someone else (other than your spouse) now will ensure you are taxed at the current rate.
  10. Assess whether to change your business type next year. Becoming a sole trader is a cheap, simple way to start – and tax efficient, if you made an initial loss. Now could be the time to go limited or form an LLP, especially with the upcoming rises in tax and National Insurance.

Ray Coman,  Coman & Co Tax Accountants (specialising in helping start-ups to succeed through quality accounting and tax advice)

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Tax is never a popular subject – made even less so by recent revelations that HMRC has got many of our tax codes wrong, meaning excessive charges for some. Mistakes by HRMC aside, ‘tax doesn’t have to be taxing’, as the saying goes. If small firms take the time to keep their books in order throughout the year, a mad dash at key dates in the taxation calendar can be avoided.

2010 has only just begun, so now is the perfect time to turnover a new (bookkeeping) leaf. Start by buying yourself some filing equipment, with different folders for sales invoices, paid and unpaid bills, bank statements and VAT returns, plus wages, if you have staff.

Now you have some inviting looking new folders, go through your in-tray – at least once a week – and put all your bits of paper in the appropriate place. If you set aside a small amount of time to sort out your books, weekly – or even daily – it shouldn’t become too much of a chore. Bookkeeping needs to be part of your routine, like reading emails, otherwise it can be all too easy to find something else to do instead.

Keeping accounts isn’t just sensible, it’s a legal obligation. Companies must keep all records relating to their VAT returns for a minimum of six years after the tax year to which they relate. As a minimum, you must record any income earned or expenses incurred by the company and retain all related documents, including receipts, cheque stubs, invoices, bank statements, PAYE records, etc.

To get a clear picture of where your money is going, your transactions must be recorded in a meaningful way. You should give your ‘expenses’ record a sheet of its own, with columns representing categories such as ‘rent’, ‘utilities’, ‘travel’ and ‘stationery’. This will give you an ongoing sense of where you might be over-spending, which can help you to cut unnecessary costs

Why rely on books or bits of paper when there is a wide variety of accounting software available? For a more simple and cheaper solution, an Excel spreadsheet is a perfectly useful tool for keeping records on your computer.

Keeping your records on a spreadsheet or using bookkeeping software enables you to see your total transactions in an instant. You can also search for a figure among your costs should a mystery debit appear on your bank statement and even produce projections based on the average transactions made in previous months.

You should be using your bank statements as a reference point, checking every figure in your bookkeeping records against transactions on your bank statement. This is a great way to identify missing receipts, while giving you a consistent monthly deadline to follow for getting your records in order.

Make sure you note all key deadlines for filing with HMRC. Set reminders on your computer, so you don’t have to rely on remembering to check your diary. The next one to note is the PAYE deadline on 19 May, when employers must register with HMRC to file online. HMRC is supplying free software so small businesses can file their employee data securely. For more information visit the HMRC website.

If you really can’t commit to the above, it may be time to call in an experienced bookkeeper. Of course, there will be an expense associated with this, but since it could free up your time and give you better information with which to make business decisions, it could be worth the investment.

Anita Brook is director of chartered certified accountancy firm Accounts Assist. Follow her on Twitter.

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When to register for VAT

There are many excellent articles around on when to register for VAT, including the one on the Start Up Donut, so I’ll try not to repeat what is already available.

So, you’ve recently set up or are about to start your business and you want to know what to do about VAT. You should do this when you draw up your business plan and cashflow forecasts, because it could affect your profitability.

What’s the first thing you need to do? Find out the VAT treatment of what you’re selling. The key questions are: would you have to charge VAT if you were VAT-registered? If not, is that because your supplies are exempt from VAT or zero-rated?

This latter point is an important distinction. In simple terms:

  • if they are zero-rated, you can reclaim VAT you pay on your expenses.
  • if they are exempt, you won’t be able to register or reclaim the VAT on your expenses.

If you fall in the latter category, there’s no need to read on.

Otherwise, what you do is liable to VAT at 0%, 5% and/or 17.5%. How do you work out when to register?

The registration limit is based on the value of your taxable supplies (ie the value of what you’ve sold that attracts VAT, in the past 12 months).

Keep track of this by recording at the end of each month what your taxable turnover has been. Add up the past 12 months to see whether you’ve gone over the registration limit. If so, you need to apply for VAT registration within 30 days of the end of the month in which your turnover went over the limit.

If you went over the registration limit in less than 12 months, you should still apply to register at the end of that month. Don’t wait for the end of a 12-month period or you might find yourself liable to a penalty.

Should you apply to register for VAT before you go over the registration limit? That’s a very difficult question to answer and one that can only be determined by you with help from your advisers. There can be benefits to being registered for VAT, particularly where you customers are wholly or mainly businesses that are VAT registered. They will be able to recover the VAT you charge. Some suggest that being registered gives your business a certain credibility, after all, who would register for VAT unless they had to?

One thing that makes this decision a bit of a no-brainer is if you are only selling things that are zero-rated because you will get back the VAT on your expenses, but not have to account for VAT on your sales. This way you get paid by HMRC when you put in a VAT return. The only thing you should consider is whether you will be claiming back enough VAT to make the hassle worthwhile.

Robert Killington, VATark

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