The recently enacted 2017 Tax Act (originally called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act – “Tax Reform”) made major changes to the US tax system.  Because C corporations (“C corps”) are now taxed at a flat 21% federal income tax rate, many business owners are asking whether they should structure their businesses as C corps.  The answer, unfortunately, is not simple.  Business owners should discuss the various considerations of this decision with their tax advisors.  Here are some of the pros and cons of using a C corp after Tax Reform:

1. Benefits.  C corp income is taxed at a flat 21% rate whereas partnership income flowing through to an individual partner is subject to tax at a maximum 37% rate.  In addition, C corps can fully deduct state and local taxes whereas an individual’s deduction is limited to a maximum of $10,000.

2. Pass-through income (eg, S corporation or partnership) may be eligible for a 20% deduction for qualified business income (QBI), but that still leaves the effective tax rate at 29.6% (ie, higher than the C corp 21% tax rate).  Furthermore, the 20% QBI deduction is not allowed for most service businesses (except for partners or S corp shareholders whose taxable income is less than $315,000 ($157,500 if not married filing jointly), with the benefit phased out over that amount so it is totally lost once the partner’s taxable income equals $415,000 ($207,500 if not married filing jointly).  There are also other limitations that only generally allow the QBI deduction to be claimed if the business employs many people or owns depreciable tangible property (such as real estate).  Bottom line – you have to run the numbers.

3. The drawback to C corps, of course, is that they are subject to two levels of taxation, one at the corporate level on earnings and one at the shareholder level, for example, on dividends.  Dividends usually are taxed at the qualified dividend rate of 20%, though there is usually no preferential tax rate at the state and local level.  Dividends also may be subject to the 3.8% net investment income tax.  If only federal taxes are considered, the effective federal double tax rate is 39.8%.

This may be the deciding factor for many businesses.  If a business does not make distributions to its owners (for example, the owners generally take only salary and perks and profits are reinvested), then a C corp structure may result in income tax savings.  On the other hand, if the business distributes all of its profit out to its owners annually, then the double tax resulting from a C corp structure will be disadvantageous.

4. If the C corp accumulates cash, it can be subject to one of two penalty tax regimes – accumulated earnings tax and personal holding company tax.

Closely held C corps are subject to the personal holding company tax if 60% or more of their income is passive income, which they retain in the C Corp and do not distribute to their shareholders, though the personal holding company tax often can be avoided.  In addition, a C corp is subject to the accumulated earnings tax if it accumulates earnings beyond the reasonable needs of the business.

5. Sale of company.  If a company is sold, it is most often structured as an asset sale, which results in two levels of tax for a C corp – one tax to the corporation when it sells its assets in exchange for cash (or a note, etc.) and a second tax if the corporation is liquidated and the stockholders exchange their (low basis) shares for the sale proceeds.  For a company that may be sold in the near future, C corp status would be disadvantageous.  On the other hand, if there are no plans to sell the company (eg, children in the business), this may not be a concern.

The owner may consider whether he or she can own goodwill, client lists or other intangible assets in his or her own name rather than in the corporation to avoid double tax.  See Martins Ice Cream, Norwalk, and related tax cases on “personal goodwill.”

6. Step-up at death.  If an owner dies owning C corp stock, the stock will receive a step-up in basis to its fair market value.  This will avoid a shareholder level tax if the C corp liquidates.  However, it does not avoid a tax to the corporation on any appreciated assets that are distributed in liquidation or later sold by the C corp.

7. Losses.  If a partnership has losses that flow through to its partners, those losses would not flow through if the entity becomes a C corp, so C corp status would be disadvantageous.

8. Timing and related issues.  A company that is an LLC can elect to be treated as a corporation for tax purposes.  If a decision is made to terminate S corp or partnership status, then termination would have to be completed by March 15 to be effective this year.  Also, an S corporation that terminates its S status has a five year waiting period to convert back to S status.  If the C corp converts to S corp status in the future, then it may be subject to a built-in gain tax and other concerns if it later converts to an S corp and has accumulated earnings and profits.

If an S corp converts to a C corp, there is a two-year post termination period to take out AAA.  The Tax Reform bill provides that distiributions within this period will be partly treated as AAA (tax-free) and partly treated as previous C corp E&P (taxable 23.8 dividend).

Also, given the uncertainty surrounding the Tax Reform bill and the possibility that the rules could be changed again, some business owners may be reluctant to convert to C corp status and then get “stuck” if the rates or rules change.

9. Outbound foreign.  Under the new international tax rules, ownership of foreign corporations by a C corp rather than an individual has several advantages.  Dividends paid by a foreign corporation to a C corp can escape any tax while dividends paid to an individual are fully taxable.  If a foreign corporation has income that exceeds a base threshold amount (generally, 10% of the book value of its assets) and the foreign corporation does not distribute those excess earnings to its US shareholder, then the new “GILTI” tax applies to treat the US shareholder as receiving a deemed taxable dividend of that excess amount.  But C corps pay a lower tax rate on this income or may not pay any tax at all.

If you, as a business owner, are asking yourself, “Should I be a C corp?” note that there is not a “one size fits all” answer.  Have your CPA run the numbers using the new tax rules and rates.  Speak to your tax attorney to review the specifics of your situation.  Revisit this decision periodically.

The new tax bill passed by Congress is expected to be signed into law by President Trump in the next few days.  Based on the changes that will take place as of January 1, 2018, there are several items that taxpayers should consider implementing prior to December 31, 2017.

Please note that each taxpayer’s situation is different and each suggestion below should be discussed with the taxpayer’s tax and financial advisors to determine what steps, if any, should be implemented now or deferred until next year or whether it should be implemented at all depending on the taxpayer’s business and tax attributes.

Items to consider:

  • Prepay real estate property taxes if you have amounts due for 2018 (cannot prepay NJ or NY state income taxes)
  • Prepay home equity interest (no deduction after this year)
  • Make charitable contributions this year, especially if not itemizing deductions in 2018
  • Accelerate business deductions
  • Medical expense deduction floor reduction to 7.5% only lasts through 12/31/18, so incur medical expenses if possible before then
  • Delay or accelerate Roth conversion
  • Defer or accelerate income*
  • If you are a US person with foreign businesses, potentially converting to an S corporation before year end could be beneficial due to a “deemed repatriation” of profits in the new bill
  • If you have children in private elementary, junior high or high schools and have not already been funding 529 plans, consider use of 2017 annual exclusions not otherwise exhausted to fund 529 plans

 

*Deferral of income until 2018 could save taxes for some taxpayers because of the lower marginal rates, while acceleration of income could save taxes for others due to the limitation on deductions of state and local taxes.  Whether or not a taxpayer is subject to AMT also plays a role.  Again, each taxpayer should consult his or her own tax and financial advisors for specific advice.

Beginning January 1, 2018, the IRS will begin implementing Section 7345 of the Internal Revenue Code to certify tax debt to the State Department.  This will allow the State Department to revoke or withhold the issuance of passports to delinquent U.S. taxpayers.

To warrant IRS certification to the State Department, the IRS debt has to be deemed “seriously delinquent tax debt.”  This is defined as: (a) an amount exceeding $50,000, as adjusted annually for inflation and including penalties and interest; (b) a levy or notice of federal tax lien has been issued by the IRS; and (c) all administrative remedies, such as the right to request a collection due process hearing, have lapsed or been exhausted.  This only relates to Title 26 of the United States Code and does not include other tax-related penalties, such as FBAR penalties.

The IRS will be required to notify the taxpayer in writing at the time it issues a tax debt certification to the State Department. Before denying a passport, the State Department will hold a passport application for 90 days to allow the taxpayer to resolve the tax debt or enter into a payment alternative with the IRS.

It is also possible to seek relief in U.S. Tax Court or District Court.  The court can order the IRS to reverse the certification if it was erroneously issued, or was required to be reversed but the IRS failed to do so.

The certification will not apply or will be reversed in the following scenarios:

  • The debt is paid in full. (The IRS will not reverse the certification if the taxpayer pays down the debt to an amount below $50,000.)
  • The taxpayer enters into an installment agreement with the IRS to pay off the debt.
  • The IRS accepts an offer in compromise to satisfy the debt, or the Justice Department enters into a settlement agreement with the taxpayer to satisfy the debt.
  • Collection is suspended based on a request of innocent spouse relief, or for collection due process based on a notice of levy, but only if the request is with respect to the debt underlying the certification.
  • The debt becomes unenforceable based on statute of limitations.

The law affects expatriates living abroad and individuals traveling regularly overseas for work.  If the taxpayer finds himself or herself traveling or living outside of the country with a revoked passport, the Secretary of State has the discretion to limit the existing passport, or issue a limited one, for return travel to the United States.

It is not clear if this statute will ultimately pass constitutional challenges.  In the meantime, starting January 1, 2018, you may be at risk of having your U.S. passport revoked if you travel outside of the U.S. without first addressing delinquent tax debts exceeding $50,000 through any administrative remedies and/or collection alternatives available to you.

New Jersey recently enacted the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the “Act”).  See the Act here.  In general, the Act provides executors, trustees, guardians, and power of attorney holders (“fiduciaries”) with the ability to access and control “digital assets” belonging to decedents, beneficiaries and wards.  The term “Digital Asset” is broadly defined under the Act as any electronic record, and includes e-mail accounts, social media accounts, virtual currency accounts (e.g., Bitcoin), domain names, blogs, photos and videos posted to the internet, music sharing services, cloud based storage accounts and more.

Obtaining Access to Digital Assets

Basically, the Act acknowledges that an individual has a property right in his or her digital assets, and permits an individual to designate a fiduciary to manage those assets.  The terms-of-service agreements (“TOSA”) used by many companies that store digital assets (e.g., Facebook or Yahoo), which are called “Custodians” under the Act, provide that an individual’s account is non-transferrable and terminates at death.  The Act essentially overrides the TOSA and allows individuals to authorize fiduciaries to access their accounts by serving a request and proof of authority on a Custodian.

Among other things, the Act seeks to address situations where a family member or loved one is denied access to a decedent’s account because the Custodian refuses to allow it.  For example, in a well-publicized case (In re Estate of Ellsworth, No. 2005-296, 651- DE (Mich. Prob. Ct. May 11, 2005), the family of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq successfully sued Yahoo in a Michigan probate court for access to the decedent’s e-mail account.  Such a lawsuit now could be avoided under the Act in New Jersey if the decedent had authorized access during life.

The Act contains detailed procedures for obtaining or restricting access to digital assets.  First, a designation in an “Online Tool” (i.e., a tool provided by a custodian allowing an individual to grant or deny access) has priority over any designation contained in an individual’s estate planning documents or the TOSA.  If the individual does not use an Online Tool (or the Custodian does not offer one), then any direction contained in the individual’s estate planning documents controls.  If there is no Online Tool designation or direction contained in estate planning documents, then the Custodian’s TOSA will control.  See Section 4 of the Act.  Thus, an individual can specify which digital assets may be preserved for posterity, and those he or she prefers to take to the grave.

The Act does not apply to any digital asset of an employer used by an employee in the ordinary course of business.

Steps to consider

Individuals may now wish to consider:  (1) creating an inventory of their digital assets, which may include valuable domain names or virtual currency accounts; (2) using Online Tools to grant fiduciary authorizations or ensuring that estate planning documents include a specific grant of authority to access digital assets; and, (3) specifying any digital assets that they do not want fiduciaries to possess or ascertaining that the terms of the TOSA will suffice to achieve the desired restriction.

Obligations of fiduciary

The Act requires fiduciaries to act in a manner that is consistent with the individual’s wishes, and they cannot engage in conduct that violates the scope of authority provided to them.  Moreover, fiduciaries have a duty to marshal and preserve digital assets within their control and could, presumably, be held accountable for waste or mismanagement.

In sum, the Act modernizes New Jersey law by expressly recognizing and clarifying the rights and obligations of fiduciaries and individuals with respect to digital assets.

The New Jersey Tax Court recently released its opinion in Estate of Ruth Oberg, NJ Tax Court, Docket No 000240 (October 24, 2017), upholding the Division of Taxation’s assessment of additional New Jersey estate tax.  The case provides some important reminders about doing proper estate planning.

The estate in this case had a date of death value of $3.1 million and an alternate valuation date value of $2.1 million.  The estate claimed the alternate valuation date on its New Jersey estate tax return.  Unfortunately for the estate, however, the return was filed almost four years after the decedent’s death.  The judge agreed with the Division of Taxation that the return was filed too late to be able to claim the alternate valuation date.

The decedent also had made an undocumented loan to her daughter.  The estate claimed that the loan was a self-cancelling installment note (“SCIN”) and therefore was cancelled at death.  The court, emphasizing the difficulties of proving that an undocumented loan was actually a SCIN, found that the decedent had an interest in the loan at her death, and it was includible in her estate.  The court also found that the Division of Taxation was not bound by the IRS closing letter issued in the estate where the federal estate tax return was accepted as filed.

This is a classic “failure to plan” case.  If the decedent had properly documented the loan, and if the estate tax return had been filed on time, the additional estate tax assessed in the case could have been avoided.