Commingling of funds (mixing business and personal funds) is one of the riskiest things you can do, causing serious legal and tax problems.
The issue is less acute from a legal standpoint if you are a non-LLC sole proprietor. There are still plenty of tax issues, however.
LLCs and corporations are at extraordinary risk when funds are commingled. Treating your business as a personal fiefdom instead of a separate entity—which it is—can cause serious legal and tax issues down the road. We will deal with both issues in this post.
Legal Issues When Commingling
The real reason you should incorporate or organize an LLC is for legal purposes. Taxes come along for the ride.
The tax code treats certain incorporated businesses punitively: notably attorneys, accountants and doctors. When people in these professions want the liability protection of a corporation they are considered a personal service corporation (PSC).
A PSC is not entitled to the graduated tax rates of regular corporations and therefore pay tax at the top corporate rate on all profits. New tax laws lessen the tax issues a bit now that the top corporate tax rate is a flat 21%, but other issues still abound.
For these reasons we saw large partnerships form for doctors, attorneys and accountants. (Making partner is something every CPA and attorney aspired to.)
The problem with large partnerships is that legal liability can be massive in these professions. The tax hit was so large that insurance was a cheaper route than the higher taxes of a corporation, However, it was a serious disadvantage.
And with attorneys taking the hit it was only a matter of time before a solution was devised. (The first LLC was allowed in 1977 in Wyoming when the state passed legislation allowing limited liability companies.) The limited liability corporation (or partnership) was created.
The good news is that LLCs are superior to corporations in many respects. Organizing as an LLC and then electing to be treated as a regular or S corporation is quite common.
Before I outline how dangerous commingling of business and personal funds are, let me first outline the legal difference between an LLC and corporation.
Legal Difference Between an LLC and Corporation
LLCs and corporations are organized at the state level so the rules can vary between state. I practice as a tax professional (enrolled agent) so what I am about to share is how I understand the difference between LLCs and corporations as told to me by attorneys. Always consult a competent legal professional prior to organizing a legal entity (LLC or corporation).
This is the one difference, of many, between the LLC and corporation I consider the most important. It is best illustrated by using two almost identical firms facing a legal challenge.
Two groups of twenty doctors join together to start a practice. The first group of doctors organizes as a corporation. It does not matter if they are a regular or S corporation as those are tax designations and we are only considering legal protection in this example. The second groups of doctors organizes as an LLC. They can elect to be treated as an S corporation, but they are still legally an LLC.
A doctor from each practice face a lawsuit. In the corporation practice all doctors are liable for the acts of each other doctor (all-acts). The doctor sued in the LLC is the only doctor liable; the other doctors are not liable for the acts of other doctors in the LLC (own-acts).
This is a huge advantage to businesses with multiple owners. Not only is there a legal wall between your business and personal wealth; there is a wall between you and the other LLC members and their actions!
Each state has their own laws governing how this will work in their state. The state you organize in is the state laws you follow. (You can organize an entity in any state even if you don’t do business there.)
Limited liability, whether from an LLC or corporation, can be pierced. You may have heard the term “piercing the corporate veil”. What that means is certain actions can cause your personal belongings and wealth to be at risk even though you have the protective entity structure.
I don’t know if I can shout this loud enough. If you commingle personal and business funds you almost certainly lose all the asset legal protections provided by the LLC or corporation!
So, when you commingle you lose the single greatest advantage to having the entity structure.
Here are two simple rules to consider when contemplating commingling:
Rule 1. Commingling invalidates your LLC and all your personal assets are at risk: lake house, mountain retreat, boat, kids college fund etc are at risk in a lawsuit or asset seizure.
Rule 2. No commingling. If confused, see rule 1.
But it gets worse!
Tax Issues When Commingling
Losing all your legal protection is a disaster, but then you face tax issues.
Commingling is the bane of every tax professional. Poor recordkeeping is time consuming to fix when time is at a premium during tax season. Bad records are so common virtually all accountants charge more to deal with poor, incomplete or missing records when preparing a tax return.
An informal survey on social media shows many tax professionals refuse to take clients with poor records and even break the engagement if poor records are turned in more than a few years. (It’s low margin work with lots of stress when time is in short supply. Top level tax professionals don’t have time for this foolishness.) The author has disengaged many clients over the years due to commingling.
Cathy Bryant, a former IRS revenue agent told me, “The fastest way to get into tax and money problems is to commingle funds.”
What does Bryant mean by this? Well, when you commingle funds you really have no idea what your real income and expenses are. The mixing of business and personal funds means the IRS can run over you, causing you to pay more taxes, and you have no recourse because you have no idea what your numbers really are.
If you are a corporation or partnership (or LLC treated as such) you have the added issue of basis. There is no room in this post for a detailed review of basis, but know this: If you don’t know your basis there can be some very nasty tax surprises in your future.
Also, the IRS can revoke your S election if you commingle funds because you are not treating the S corporation like a separate entity. This means you could face serious additional taxes in an audit without recourse. Re-read this paragraph again S corp owners until this sinks in. If the IRS discovers commingling in an audit it could bankrupt you!
I hope I put the fear of God in you with the warnings above. Every tax professional should keep this post and show it to clients who commingle or are contemplating it. Remind the client the next step is ending the engagement. (Most tax professionals require an engagement letter be signed prior to working on an account. The engagement letter outlines the services provided and fees.)
Your legal protection is gone when you commingle.
The IRS has you when you commingle. The IRS auditor will assess more tax and get away with it due to your poor records and commingling of personal and business funds. Revocation of your S election will be a financial disaster.
Avoiding commingling is actually very easy. If you don’t want to handle the bookkeeping yourself, hire it out. It is cheaper than overpaying your taxes and losing legal protections
Here are the rules you should follow when you have a business, no matter how small. Even a side hustle treated as a sole proprietorship should follow these rules.
Rule 1: Use separate bank accounts and records. The easiest way to keep personal and business monies separate is to have separate bank accounts for business use only and records dedicated to the business. Use any bookkeeping software you want, even an Excel file works.
When the business needs money you can invest money into your company by moving money from your personal account to the business account. This will show on your Balance Sheet equity accounts as a contribution or investment. It will add to equity basis for tax purposes; a good thing, especially for S corporations.
Once your business is profitable you can distribute money to the owner: you. Record the transaction as a distribution. You may also have a wage from your business if you are an S corporation. The distribution is the profits paid you (think of it as a dividend on your invested capital) after your wage is paid.
Rule 2: Treat the business like the separate entity it is. If you were the CEO of Apple you would not mix your personal funds with the corporations. I know, I know! You are not Apple. But you should still treat the business, even if 100% owned by you, as a separate entity (which it is).
There is no problem with you investing in your business or distributing excess funds. To do this you just transfer money into or out of the business account. The transaction is recorded on the books of the business accordingly.
Never deposit a business check to your personal account! The business should never pay your personal bills, either! (Transfer the money from the business to your personal account if you need business funds for personal expenses. This will leave a clean paper trail sure to please your tax professional and thwart a zealous IRS auditor.)
Rule 3: Consider a loan to/from shareholder account. You can also lend money to and from your business.
When you have a small business it is hard to always separate all expenses. For example: you might have one mobile phone for business and personal. Having two phone would not make sense for such a small business. Since the phone is in your name you can pay the bill and have your business reimburse you for the business portion, currently a 60% safe harbor.
The same applies to mileage, meals or any other hard to separate business expenses. Your business can reimburse you for personal payment of business expenses. This is called an accountable plan and acceptable to the IRS (and distinguished tax professionals everywhere).
I understand many small businesses frequently transact funds with an owner. Rather than record each of these transfers in an equity account, consider using a loan to or from shareholder account. If you take many distributions during the year treat it as a loan to shareholder. On the last day of the year convert the loan to a distribution. It is cleaner than running numerous transactions through equity accounts.
Credit card rewards also cause many business owners to commingle funds. I understand you want the most cash back so you want to run personal and business on one card.
This isn’t a problem as long as it is one card and not credit card churning. If you want to churn, don’t involve the business; it becomes a mess really fast with the legal and tax consequences listed above.
However, you can have one credit card for business and personal. Reconcile the business portion of expenses on the card. If you pay with a business check make sure you list the personal spending as a loan to shareholder. If you pay the credit card bill with a personal check either get a reimbursement from the business or record as a loan from shareholder.
Commingling is the bane of the accounting, bookkeeping and tax preparation businesses of the world. Keep business accounts and spending separate.
Good tax professionals will either charge for fixing your books during tax season and are likely to disengage. Then you are left with a second tier professional, if you can even find one willing to deal with such a mess.
In a tax audit you don’t want a revenue agent to see you commingled funds. They will have a field day with you if you have.
Most of all, you want clean books so you know where your business stands financially and can make better business decisions.
And if your tax professional asked you to read this it means you either comply or are gone. Life is too short and tax professionals are under a lot of stress. Help them help you pay less tax. Never commingle funds.
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