Is ignorance of tax law a good defense for homeschool teachers?

A homeschool leader became concerned about a paid teacher in her homeschool group. It seems this woman has not reported her income from teaching at the homeschool program for 7 years!

The teacher has refused to listen when others try to explain her tax obligation.

The leader told me that the teacher “stops me in mid sentence because she wants to claim ignorance if she were to get audited.”

She believes she could claim, “I didn’t know.”

 So is ignorance of the tax laws a good defense?

Not typically!

Typically, ignorance of the law is not a defense in our criminal justice system.  Under a long-standing legal fiction, defendants are, instead, presumed to know the law. Source: https://www.freemanlaw-pllc.com/cheek-defense-federal-tax-crimes/

 

But in this case, the teacher is NOT ignorant of her obligation to report her income.

She is willfully blind.

“Most courts agree that if the taxpayer willfully remains “blind” to his or her obligations under the tax laws, no valid defense can exist.” Source: https://thetaxlawyer.com/…/tax-law-mistake-ignorance…

 

In other words, since the paid teacher is being willfully blind, she has no defense as to why she is evading income tax.

And as a taxpayer I don’t like it when other people evade taxes!

 

Your responsibility as a homeschool leader is to file the required reports, either a 1099-MISC (for Independent Contractors) or W-2 (for employees) with the IRS by January 31 each year.

 

My book Paying Workers in a Homeschool Organization explains the required reports your homeschool group should be giving to its workers (and a whole lot more!)

Carol Topp, CPA

HomeschoolCPA.com

Should your homeschool Director serve as a board member?

Sometimes a homeschool groups gets large enough that they want to hire or pay their Director. In nonprofits that position is usually called the Executive Director or even Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

It is usually the first paid position in a nonprofit.

The Executive Director is similar to a pastor at a church. He (or she, depending on your denomination) is hired by the board of the church and does a lot of the day-to-day running of the church.

It’s similar in a homeschool nonprofit: the paid director is hired by the board to manage the day-to-day operations of the organization.

But should that hired Director serve on your board?

BoardSource (an excellent website for help in running your nonprofit board) says., ”

BoardSource also recommends nonvoting status for chief executives, unless not permitted by law. We embrace nonvoting status in recognition of the fact that actual or perceived conflicts of interest may naturally come along with the pairing of this position with board member status.

 

I, too, like the idea of a paid Director serving as a nonvoting board member.

I’ve seen it work well on some boards to have the Director attend meetings, give a report, share her opinion, etc, but not be allowed a vote.

When I served on my church’s board of trustees, the pastor came to the meeting, gave a report, was free to voice an opinion, but had no vote. That way he avoided a conflict of interest.

The paid Director should not vote because she has a conflict of interest: Is she thinking of the good of the group first and foremost or is she thinking about her job and her paycheck?

The volunteer Director does not have that conflict of interest, so he or she is usually still given voting rights.

If you decide to pay your Director:

  • Make sure you update your bylaws
  • Adopt a Conflict of Interest policy.
  • Read about paying people in your homeschool organization.

Need help with those issues?

 

My book, Homeschool Organization Board Manual can help with:

  • Sample Conflict of Interest policies
  • Sample Bylaws
  • Board descriptions
  • Compensation and Benefits for Board Members

 

Carol Topp, CPA

HomeschoolCPA.com

 

 

When someone volunteers you

 

Have you ever been volunteered by someone else?

I’ve volunteered a lot over the years, but it was my choice to volunteer.

Once I was volunteered (more like assigned) by a fellow board member to do promotion for our annual fundraiser. I was absent at the meeting where they divvied up the jobs, so when this board member called to tell me what I had been “volunteered” to do, she said, “Well, I thought you’d want to help out. Everyone else is.”

So I was volunteered and guilt-ed into it, too!

I declined, explaining that I had not experience or gifts in marketing and promotion a fundraising event.

It doesn’t feel good to be volunteered into doing something does it?

A homeschool mom emailed me to say that she teaches at a local homeschool program. The homeschool organization gives free classes to board members. That’s very generous of them.

This teaching-parent is paid based on the number of children enrolled in her class and was pretty surprised when she was told she would have two of a board member’s children in her class and they would “be pro bono cases.” That means she wasn’t going to get paid for these two students in her class! This teacher has a written contract with the homeschool group and it does not mention any “pro bono cases.”

Pro bono means “for the public good” and refers to an attorney offering his or her services for free to help a public cause.

I find it odd that the homeschool organization used the term “pro bono” like this. They shouldn’t obligate someone else (the teacher in this case) to work “pro bono.” It’s like volunteering someone else!

Some homeschool groups waive tuition and fees for board members, but that doesn’t mean the group should stiff the teachers! It means the homeschool group absorbs the cost themselves.

So homeschool leaders, go ahead and be generous. Offer discounts to your hard working board members (but read this to make sure the discounts are not taxable income to your board members), but please treat your paid teachers well too!

Don’t go “pro bono” or volunteer someone else. It’s just not nice.

Carol Topp, CPA

HomeschoolCPA.com

How does the IRS prove my homeschool group’s tutor should be an employee?

 

D. is a leader of a homeschool program, Classical Conversations, who asked me about the worker status of tutors in her program: Should they be employees or Independent Contractors? This question applies to many homeschool groups, not just Classical Conversations.

What evidence would the IRS use to prove an “employee” was “treated” wrong (i.e., misclassified as an Independent Contractor when they should be an employee)? If it’s how much freedom the tutor felt they had, I am confused.

If I hire a independent contractor to paint my walls do I not have full rights to specify how, what color, the time frame I need it done, etc? How can this truly be an issued PROVED by IRS?

-D.
(edited for clarity and spelling)

 

D.,

Let me clear up something.

The IRS rulings, decisions and determinations on worker status are based on common law, not scientific facts.

Common law is the body of law derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes. Common law (also known as judicial precedent or judge-made law, or case law) is that body of law derived from judicial decisions of courts (Wikipedia definition https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_law)

The common-law system is used in all the states of the United States.

Common law and the IRS does not use the word “prove” as used in science. Instead judges and the IRS make judgements or determinations. Application of IRS regulations and determinations is not science, it’s law and that’s a different mindset.

Things cannot be “proven” in law like they can in science.

Under a common-law system, disputes are settled through an adversarial exchange of arguments and evidence. Both parties present their cases before a neutral fact finder, either a judge or a jury. The judge or jury evaluates the evidence, applies the appropriate law to the facts, and renders a judgment in favor of one of the parties. Following the decision, either party may appeal the decision to a higher court. Appellate courts in a common-law system may review only findings of law, not determinations of fact. Source: https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/common+law

I’ve written several blog posts on the factors (or “evidence”) that the IRS considers in making a worker determination. Here’s one: Behavior Control of an Independent Contractor

Behavioral Control, which you mentioned in your question, is only one of the many factors to be considered.

The IRS says,

“Businesses must weigh all these factors when determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor. Some factors may indicate that the worker is an employee, while other factors indicate that the worker is an independent contractor. There is no “magic” or set number of factors that “makes” the worker an employee or an independent contractor, and no one factor stands alone in making this determination. Also, factors which are relevant in one situation may not be relevant in another.”

So citing an Independent Contractor painting your walls is not relevant in determining worker status of a teacher in a homeschool program or Classical Conversations group. They are very different situations.

A better comparison is an adjunct instructor at a local college. The IRS has several rulings about the worker status of college instructors. There have been several court cases involving instructors in an education setting. Reading these court cases and IRS rulings and determinations have led me to the conclusion:

Because instruction is a fundamental component of a homeschool organization, instructors, tutors and teachers should be treated as employees because the homeschool group will always exert control over these workers. (from Paying Workers in a Homeschool Organization by Carol Topp, CPA)

 

If you want more details, my book Paying Workers in a Homeschool Organization will be a big help.

I also offer a Worker Determination service to help decide if your tutors are misclassified as Independent Contractor  when they should be paid as employees.
Carol Topp, CPA

Can CC Director offered reduced tuition to her tutors?

 

Can a Classical Conversations director gift an Independent Contractor or employee with free or reduced tuition?

Suzy

 

Suzy,
A Classical Conversations (CC) Director can give educational benefits (i.e., discounts on tuition) to Independent Contractors (IC) or employees, but (and this is a big, “but”) the value of these educational benefits is taxable income and must be reported on their W-2 or 1099-MISC.

So a CC director can offer a tuition discount to an IC or employee, but must add the value of that discount to the tax reports she gives to her tutors (1099-MISC or W-2).

And the worker must report her paid wages and the value of this discount/gift on her tax return as taxable income. You should warn her about that in writing and face-to-face, so they aren’t surprised at tax time!

We think that taxable income is only what comes in a paycheck, but the IRS defines taxable compensation to include “educational benefits.”

compensation includes salary or wages, deferred compensation, retirement benefits…, fringe benefits (personal vehicle, meals, lodging, personal and family educational benefits, low interest loans, payment of personal travel, entertainment, or other expenses, athletic or country club membership, and personal use of your property), and bonuses.[i]  (my emphasis added)

[i] Instructions for Form 1023 https://www.irs.gov/instructions/i1023/ch02.html#d0e1909

So, yes, a CC Director can offer free or reduced fees to an Independent Contractor or employee, but it is not a gift; it is taxable income and must be included in their wage and income reporting.

A CC Director should also check her license agreement with Classical Conversations to see if reduced fees are allowed.

If you have additional tax questions about being a CC Director, I wrote an ebook that can help!
Taxes for Licensed CC Directors is available from Classical Conversation. Find it here
Carol Topp, CPA
HomeschoolCPA.com

Can homeschool groups give free tuition to teachers like private schools?

I taught at a private school before I started homeschooling and I received free tuition for my children. Now I teach at a homeschool program. Can homeschool groups give free or reduced tuition as a fringe benefit like private schools?

 

Maybe!

You’re talking about what the US Tax Code calls “Qualified tuition reduction.”

The United States Tax Code, or 26 U.S.C. § 117(d) has some good news:
 In General. – Gross income shall not include any qualified tuition reduction.
“qualified tuition reduction” means the amount of any reduction in tuition provided to an employee of an organization described in section 170(b)(1)(A)(ii)

 

In plain English that means a school may provide its employees with tuition breaks, or cash grants for payment of tuition, without that benefit being considered taxable income to the employee. Good news for school employees!

But notice a few important words: employee and school

Are you an employee of the homeschool program?

If so, keep reading. But if you are an Independent Contractor, you cannot get tax-free tuition reduction benefits.

Is the homeschool program you work for as an employee a “school”?

The US Tax Code defines a school in section 170(b)(1)(A)(ii):

 An educational organization is described in section 170(b)(1)(A)(ii) if its primary function is the presentation of formal instruction and it normally maintains a regular faculty and curriculum and normally has a regularly enrolled body of pupils or students in attendance at the place where its educational activities are regularly carried on. The term includes institutions such as primary, secondary, preparatory, or high schools, and colleges and universities. It includes Federal, State, and other public-supported schools which otherwise come within the definition.

 

One aspect of a school is a “regular faculty,” which the IRS defines as

“qualified teachers instruct the students, and the same teachers do so on a recurrent basis.” 

Source: Internal Revenue Manual viewed http://www.irs.gov/irm/part7/irm_07-026-002.html#d0e549 on 5/11/15.

And by “qualified” the IRS means:

“certifications by the appropriate state authority or successful completion of required training.” 

Source: Instructions for Form 1023

Hmmm…

…regular faculty…regularly enrolled student body…qualified teachers…recurrent basis…teacher certifications…

Do those words used to definition a “school” apply to your homeschool program?

Maybe. Or maybe not. It might be hard to tell what the IRS meant since this part of the US Tax Code was written long before anyone thought of homeschool programs employing teachers.

Here’s my concern: If a homeschool program fits the IRS and US Tax Code definition of “school” so that its employees can get tax-free fringe benefits, is that homeschool program also a school in the eyes of its state laws regarding private schools? And are the students then attending a school and not really legally homeschooling?

Additionally, since states regulate education in the USA, your state’s definition of school may be VERY different from the US Tax Code’s definition.

It gets confusing. Very confusing. I’m a pretty conservative CPA and don’t like advising my clients unless things are pretty clearly stated in the tax code.

I also don’t want homeschool programs to be treated as schools or to even call themselves schools. I’m concerned that if homeschool programs call themselves “schools” the state may start imposing all the rules that schools must follow onto independent homeschool programs. That will stifle creativity, educational freedom, add a paperwork and reporting burden, and may end up restricting our homeschool freedoms.

It’s just not worth it!

My advice: Avoid attempting to fit the US Tax Code definition of “school.” Avoid even calling your homeschool program a school with both the IRS and with your state. Maintain homeschooling freedom even if it means you cannot offer your employees tax-free fringe benefits of “qualified tuition reduction.”

You may decide differently from what I wrote above. You may decide your homeschool program is a “school” by the IRS and US Tax Code definition. But if you do, please, please get a legal opinion on your organization’s status as a school from a qualified attorney experienced in educational institutions and get it in writing. Yes, you’ll have to pay for it, but it will be your defense if your State Board of Education wants to regulate your homeschool program!

 

Carol Topp, CPA

Summer reading for homeschool leaders: Paying Workers in a Homeschool Organization

Summer is a great time for homeschool leaders to catch up on some reading. I’m highlighting a book each week of summer and this week I’m spotlighting,

 

This book began in 2009 as a 20 page ebook. Homeschooling has changed a lot in the past 9 years and homeschool leaders are asking a lot of questions about paying workers. The book grew from 20 to 130 pages!
I expanded it in 2016 and then it needed an update in late 2017!
 

This 130 page book covers paying workers as employees or independent contractors. There are also chapters on paying volunteers and board members. It includes sample forms, tips and advice to help you pay workers in accordance with the IRS laws to help your organization pay their workers correctly. Written specifically for homeschool organizations.

 Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Can You Pay a Volunteer?Chapter 2: Paying Board Members and Other LeadersChapter 3: Employee or Independent Contractor? Worker ClassificationChapter 4: Guidelines for Hiring Independent Contractors

Chapter 5: Tax Forms for Independent Contractors

Chapter 6: Payroll Taxes for Employers

Chapter 7: Tax Forms for Employers

Chapter 8: Sample Agreements

Chapter 9: Resources

Who should read this book?
  • Anyone running a homeschool organization that pays workers of any kind.
  • Anyone who wonders is a volunteer be paid?
  • Anyone who has ever asked,”Should a worker be treated as an employee or independent contractor?”
  • Anyone who gives payments or significant discounts to board members or volunteers.
 Carol Topp, CPA

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Homeschool leaders summer reading: Money Management in a Homeschool Organization

 
This summer I’m encouraging homeschool leaders to take time to become a better leader by reading through my books. This week I’m featuring my book,

 

When I originally published this book in 2008, it was a short 40 page ebook and had a horrible cover.  I was still learning and self-publishing was brand new!
MoneyMgmtCover
An update was badly needed and I tackled that project in 2014. The book ballooned to 131 pages and I subtitled it “A Guide for Treasurers.” I feel like I poured my CPA brain into this book.

 

Cover Money Mgmt HS Org
 Topics covered in this book include:
Chapter 1: Your Treasurer is a Gem!
Chapter 2: Checking Accounts Done Right
Chapter 3: Super Simple Bookkeeping Basics
Chapter 4: Show Us Your Books! Regular Reporting on Financial Status
Chapter 5: Establish a Budget: You’ll Thank Me Later
Chapter 6: Get What’s Coming to You: Collecting Fees
Chapter 7: Do I Have to Report This? Reimbursement Policies and Avoiding Taxes
Chapter 8: Using Software to Stay Sane
Chapter 9: Fraud: It Couldn’t Happen to Us
Chapter 10: Need More Money? Easy Fundraisers for Homeschool Organizations
Chapter 11: Risky Business: Insurance for Homeschool Groups
Chapter 12: Paying Workers: Hiring Employees and Independent Contractors
Chapter 13: Homeschool For Profit: Running a Homeschool Group as a Business

 

 

 

Carol Topp, CPA

 

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Aren’t Classical Conversations tutors just like online tutors?

I’m a Classical Conversations Director and I have a local CPA. I have a question about independent contractor status for tutors. The articles I read here seem to suggest we should treat tutors as employees. Yet, for several years I worked as a tutor for national online tutoring company as an independent contractor. I was given training, direct oversight, evaluations, worked for 5-10 hours a week, yet I was an independent contractor.

What is the difference with CC tutors in the eyes of the IRS? Just trying to understand!

Thanks, Allison

 

Allison,
Thank you for contacting me.

You seem to assume that your worker classification as an Independent Contractor as  a tutor for a national online tutoring company was the correct classification. I’m not convinced it was.

You only told me four bits of information about your relationship with the online tutoring company (?I was given training, direct oversight, evaluations, worked for 5-10 hours a week), yet three of those practices (training, evaluations, and oversight) would confirm your status should have been as an employee, not an Independent Contractor.

When I make a worker determination, I do not base my conclusions on what other companies have done or are doing. I base my conclusions on the IRS guidelines, tax court cases, IRS rulings, and the facts and circumstances of each case.

You asked, “What is the difference with CC tutors in the eyes of the IRS?” There may not be many differences in the online tutoring and tutoring for CC,  but I don’t assume that you were correctly treated as an IC when you did the online tutoring.

Classical Conversations offers an ebook I wrote, Taxes for Licensed Classical Conversations Directors, where I explain the options to CC Directors in how to pay tutors.  You can treat your tutors as Independent Contractors and in the ebook I explain the risks and consequences involved.

You might show portions of the ebook to your local CPA and get his/her opinion. If they determine your tutors are Independent Contractors, then your should request that they put their conclusion in writing and on their firm letterhead. A letter like that could possibly help you avoid IRS penalties if you are ever investigated by the IRS. But let’s hope you never need it!
If you have more questions, I would be happy to arrange a phone consultation with you. I charge $75/hour for a consultation with a nonprofit organization. We can discuss a lot of topics in an hour, but in particular your questions about paying your CC tutors.

Carol Topp, CPA

 

Can a homeschool group deduct tuition from a teacher’s pay?

A homeschool program charges $2,300  per student per year for tuition. Many of the teachers in the program also have their children enrolled in the program.

The leader, Lauren, was deducting the amount of tuition owed from the teacher’s pay and reporting only the difference that she actually paid the teacher.

For example:

Teacher’s earnings: $4,000

Tuition that the teacher owed: $2,300

Teacher’s paychecks: $1,700 ($4,000 less $2,300)

Additionally, Lauren was filing the teacher’s W-2 (or 1099-MISC) and reporting wages of only $1,700, but the true earnings were $4,000.

I advise that homeschool organization DO NOT net the teacher’s pay and her tuition owed like this!

Here’s why:

Picky CPA reason: This netting (subtracting the amount paid to the teacher by the tuition she owed) masks the true amount of teacher pay and the true amount of tuition received in your bookkeeping. The homeschool leadership needs to know the total income from tuition and the total expenses paid for teachers. Netting them masks the true income and true expenses. Additionally, the total amounts of income and expenses must be reported to the IRS (usually on Form 990 or 990-EZ).

More important reason: Taxes! 

The teacher’s payments for her services is taxable earned income. But her child’s tuition is a personal  expense and not tax deductible.

I recommend that the teacher should be paid the full amount earned (in my example, $4,000) and in a separate transaction, she should pay her tuition to Lauren’s homeschool program.

Lauren was advised that she will need to amend the W-2s she gave to her teacher to correct this mistake. This will be an unwelcome surprise to the teacher, but it’s the correct, legal amount to report.

I know it seems like extra work and more complicated, but netting or offsetting the two transactions could distort the total amount of compensation the teacher needs to report to the IRS. It’s mixing taxable income with a non-tax-deductible personal expense.

That’s called tax evasion and the IRS doesn’t take kindly to tax evasion.

Cover Money Mgmt HS OrgFor more information on paying workers and correctly recording transactions in an accounting system, you may find my book, Money Management in a Homeschool Organization, helpful.

 

Carol Topp, CPA