The recently enacted 2017 tax act (originally called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act – “Tax Reform Act”) contains sweeping changes to US international tax rules that will affect international  businesses and cross border investments.   A review of how to take advantage of these new rules can reap significant benefits or avoid tax pitfalls, as discussed below.

New Territorial Tax System

The Tax Reform Act adopts a new territorial system of taxation (also known as a participation exemption system), which may eliminate or reduce US income taxes on income earned outside the US by US C corporations (“C corps”).  If a C corp owns 10% or more of a foreign corporation that pays a dividend, then the C corp receives a 100% dividends received deduction (“DRD”) for the foreign source portion of the dividend, which will eliminate or reduce the US tax imposed on the dividend.  This DRD is only available for C corps and not for S corporations or individuals.

A DRD will not apply if the foreign corporation is a passive foreign investment company (“PFIC”) unless the foreign corporation is also a controlled foreign corporation (“CFC”) as discussed below.  A PFIC is a foreign company whose income predominantly comes from passive investments (such as marketable securities).

The new territorial system does not apply to income earned by a C corp from a foreign branch.  Income from a foreign branch is subject to US tax, although if foreign tax is imposed on that income, then a foreign tax credit may reduce or eliminate US tax.  As a result, businesses that operate as C corps may want to incorporate their foreign branches to eliminate US tax on branch income.

This system also can reduce the taxable gain realized when a C corp (but not an S corporation or an individual) sells the stock of a foreign corporation.  If the C corp owns the stock of a foreign corporation for one year or more, pre-2017 law recharacterizes any amount realized by the C corp on the sale as a deemed dividend to the extent of the accumulated earnings and profits of the foreign corporation.  The Tax Reform Act provides that such deemed dividend is eligible for the participation exemption system and thus, is not subject to tax.  As a result, a US C corp can eliminate part or all of the taxable gain on the sale of stock of a foreign subsidiary.

New Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income (“GILTI”) Tax

While labeled a tax on intangible income, the GILTI tax is actually a current tax imposed on US shareholders of CFCs on their share of any income earned by the CFC that exceeds a 10% return on investment.  A CFC is any foreign corporation if US shareholders own more than 50% of its stock; for this purpose, a US shareholder is any US person who owns 10% or more of the voting stock or value of the stock of the foreign corporation.  If a CFC has certain types of passive income known as Subpart F income, then US shareholders must include in their income their share of the Subpart F income even though no dividend is paid to them.

The Tax Reform Act provides that a US shareholder of any CFC must include in gross income, for a taxable year, its GILTI in a manner generally similar to the inclusion of Subpart F income.  GILTI means the excess of the shareholder’s net CFC tested income over the shareholder’s net deemed tangible income return in that CFC.  The shareholder’s net deemed tangible income return is an amount equal to the excess of 10% of the aggregate of the shareholder’s pro rata share of the qualified business asset investment (“QBAI”) in that CFC over certain interest expense of each CFC with respect to which it is a US shareholder.  The QBAI is essentially a book value concept since it is based on the tax basis of the CFC’s assets and not their fair market value.  As a result, the 10% threshold can easily be exceeded.

US shareholders who are C corps are given special tax benefits that can eliminate the GILTI tax.  First, under the new law, a C corp can deduct 50% of the GILTI inclusion amount, which reduces the potential corporate tax from 21% to 10.5%.  Second, for any amount of GILTI included in the gross income of a C corp, the C corp would be deemed to have paid foreign income taxes equal to 80% of the foreign taxes paid by the CFC with respect to such income.  If the CFC pays foreign taxes of 13.125% or more, then this special foreign tax credit will eliminate any GILTI tax.  Individuals and S corporations get no similar treatment and pay full US tax on any GILTI inclusion amount.

Conclusion

US taxpayers should carefully review the structure of their foreign entities with their advisors to determine if the new territorial tax system may apply to them, and whether any foreign corporations may qualify as CFCs, which will subject their US shareholders to the new GILTI tax as well as numerous other rules affecting CFC shareholders.  Since the Tax Reform Act limits the benefits of the new territorial tax system to C corps and also only allows C corps benefits to eliminate the GILTI tax, US taxpayers should consider owning foreign stock in a C corp.  Individuals who own foreign corporate stock may want to transfer such stock to C corps; S corporations owning foreign corporate stock also may want to restructure to take advantage of these new rules.  While this task may not be simple, the tax benefits may significant.

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.

We are seeing an uptick in audit activity by state tax authorities of closely held businesses, particularly in the area of sales and use tax, to generate much needed revenue for meeting budget shortfalls and funding services and entitlement programs.  A go-to audit technique is to examine whether a company has “nexus” with its state.

The question of whether your company has “nexus” with other states can lurk in the background of its normal multi-state activities, until all of a sudden it explodes in an audit.  A company that has failed to file returns and pay tax where there is nexus may face an audit for the past six to eight years generating substantial tax liability.  In the case of a trust fund tax (such as sales tax) there is also personal liability to a company’s owners and officers that is not a dischargeable debt in bankruptcy.

Definition of Nexus

An out-of-state (“foreign” or “nonresident”) business with significant physical presence in another state will have nexus with this other state.  The reason is that such business will be considered to avail itself of the state’s benefits and privileges (this assumption is automatic for resident businesses) and, in turn, the state will have jurisdiction to impose “privilege” taxes, of whatever specific kind, on the nonresident business.

Physical contacts in the state, beyond outright ownership or leasing of property, may include in-state deliveries (other than by common carrier) and banking activities in the state.  For sales tax purposes, such contacts also include solicitation of sales, whether by employees, independent contractors or other agents.  In addition, states have become increasingly aggressive and have asserted “economic nexus” based on non-physical contacts with the state, such as “click-through” nexus / internet referrals, licensing a trademark, and banking and financial services.

The two most common types of tax imposed by states on out-of-state businesses through nexus are income tax and the obligation to collect sales and use tax from customers.

Income Tax

State income tax is generally imposed on a nonresident business on income sourced within the state.  However, income derived from solicitation activities is protected by federal statute, 15 USC § 381 (commonly known by its 1959 enacting legislation, “P.L. 86-272”).  Under P.L. 86-272, a state cannot impose corporate tax on a foreign business, even when there is nexus, if the tax is based on, or measured by, the business’ gross or net income if: (1) all such income is derived from solicitation of sales of tangible personal property, and (2) orders are approved and shipped from out of state.

Note that P.L. 86-272 does not protect: (a) income derived from solicitations of sales of services, real estate or intangibles, and (b) non-income franchise tax calculated based on gross receipts, apportioned capital, net worth and other non-income measures.  For example, Washington State is notorious for targeting out-of-state companies with tenuous business activities in the state for failure to pay its Business and Occupancy Tax.  Other types of such non-income taxes that have been known to reach companies “doing business” out of state include Michigan Business Tax, Texas Margin Tax, and Ohio Commercial Activities Tax.

Sales and Use Tax

P.L.86-272 only protects solicitation activities from income tax.  For sales tax purposes, solicitation of sales by subsidiaries, agents or affiliates, who are residents of a state, on behalf of a foreign business will create nexus.

In fact, many states have made nexus automatic (and also not purely based on physical nexus), through a rebuttable presumption that a foreign company’s in-state referral sources are soliciting sales, by internet or otherwise, to generate their commissions.  The burden of proof shifts to a company having to prove the opposite: that a referral arrangement with a resident does not cause such resident to solicit sales, by internet or otherwise, generating a sales tax collection obligation.  New York’s highest court has upheld this type of statutory presumption (referred to variously as “click-through nexus,” “commission-agreement provision” or “Amazon law”) against constitutional challenge by online retailers Amazon.com and Overstock.com.

Nexus Study / Diagnostic Check

In light of the potential tax pitfalls facing a business with regular ties to various states—direct or indirect, physical or economic—every multi-state business should periodically perform a state-by-state diagnostic check, or nexus study, of its activities, such as:

  • Ownership or leasing of real property (store, warehouse, office) or personal property (machinery or equipment).
  • Inventory maintained in a warehouse or by sales representatives.
  • In-state deliveries to customers in company-owned vehicles.
  • Local media advertising (e.g., phone directory or telemarketing service).
  • Employees attending trade shows, or conducting training or seminars.
  • Active solicitation of orders for sales (for sales and use tax purposes).
  • Solicitation activities beyond the protection of P.L.86-272, such as solicitation of sale of services, real estate or intangibles (for income tax purposes).
  • Installation, repair, or maintenance services.
  • In-state order approval, receipt of payment, merchandise returns and customer complaint resolution.
  • Affiliate referral programs, internet-based or otherwise.
  • License, royalty or other fee arrangements.

Once a company completes a nexus study questionnaire, and personnel interviews, regarding its specific activities in various states, this information is analyzed in light of current law by state and area of tax.  A confidential attorney-client privileged memo summarizing the nexus study results is then provided to the business.  The company can then make informed decisions with its tax counsel on how to minimize its multi-state tax exposure.  The business may choose to alter its business practices to eliminate nexus in one or more states.  If that is not possible, it may choose to make voluntary disclosures through available state programs to potentially obtain a limited look back period and waiver of penalties.

Conclusion

In the wake of dramatic budget shortfalls and deficits, states are eager to wage nexus audits on out-of-state businesses, generating significant payments of income tax, sales and use tax, interest and penalties.  If your company operates in a multi-state market, is not registered to do business in other states and is not paying income tax or collecting sales tax, it is critical that you engage a tax attorney—that has the benefit of a confidential-attorney client relationship—to conduct a state-by-state nexus study.  Failing to do so may cause your company to be blindsided by what could be substantial (in some cases multimillion dollar) tax liability that may also be a personal debt for its owners and officers.