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.

The US Tax Court recently held that a foreign corporation is not subject to US income tax on the sale of a partnership interest where the partnership conducts a US business.  In so holding, the Tax Court rejected a 26 year old Revenue Ruling (Rev Rul 91-32) that reached the opposite conclusion.  For foreign investors in US businesses (that do not own real estate), this is an important decision.

A foreign investor who owns an interest in a partnership that holds US real estate may be subject to US federal income tax on a sale of that partnership interest under the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act (“FIRPTA”).  For real estate, the IRS has indicated that gain derived by a foreign investor from the disposition of an interest in a partnership is subject to US tax only to the extent it is attributable to US real property interests owned by the partnership.  Regs §1.897-7T(a); Notice 88-72.

In Rev Rul 91-32, the IRS set forth its view that taxation on the sale of a partner’s interest in a partnership can go beyond mere real estate investment and apply to a sale of an interest in a partnership if the partnership is engaged in any US trade or business and has effectively connected income (“ECI”).  In this ruling, the IRS applied the “aggregate” theory of partnership taxation to justify looking through the partnership to its underlying assets in determining the source and character of the partner’s gain.

In July, 2017, the Tax Court issued its decision in Grecian Magnesite, Mining, Industrial & Shipping Co, SA v Comm’r, 149 TC 3The court declined to follow the IRS’s long standing position under Rev Rul 91-32, and held that a non-US person’s gain from the sale of its interest in a partnership engaged in a US trade or business is generally not subject to US federal income tax.

Grecian Magnesite Mining was a privately owned corporation organized under the laws of Greece that sells magnesia and magnesite to customers around the world.  From 2001 through 2008, it was a member of a US LLC that was engaged in the business of extracting, producing, and distributing magnesite in the US.  In 2008, Grecian Mining’s interest in the LLC was completely redeemed, resulting in treating the transaction as a sale or exchange of the membership interest.

The IRS asserted that the capital gain was properly treated as ECI since Grecian Mining was engaged in a trade or business as a result of its investment in the LLC.  Grecian Mining’s position was that the assets of the LLC do not control the character of the gain from a disposition of an interest in the LLC.  The gain should not have been treated as US-source gain and generally cannot be taxed in the US as ECI under the proposition that foreign-source income cannot be ECI except in limited instances that arise from the presence of US real estate under FIRPTA, which only applied to a small part of their gain.

Foreign investors should carefully review their US tax exposure on a sale of a partnership interest before they simply pay tax on their realized gain.  Grecian Magnesite calls into question the validity of Rev Rul 91-32 (though an appeal or non-acquiescence is possible).  A foreign investor should be able to rely on this case to avoid paying tax.  Moreover, foreign investors that have already paid income tax based upon Rev Rul 91-32 may wish to file a refund claim based on this decision.

On November 2, 2015, new partnership audit rules, repealing existing TEFRA rules, were enacted in Section 1101 of the Bipartisan Budget Act (“BBA”).  On August 15, 2016, Treasury published temporary regulations (TD 9780, 81 FR 51795).  The BBA will become effective on January 1, 2018, although partnerships can elect into the new rules retroactively to November 2, 2015.

The new rules have created quite the excitement among certain tax professionals because they shift both the audit and the collection of partnership taxes to the partnership.  Since 1982, partnership audits have been governed by the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (“TEFRA”).  Partnerships with 10 or fewer partners (with some exceptions, such as tiered partnerships) were exempt from TEFRA rules, and were governed by the default partner-level audit regime that existed prior to TEFRA.  What that means is, such small partnership audits were of the K-1’s of the partners who owned interest in the partnership in the years under audit, and correspondingly any adjustments were paid by those “review-year” partners.  For all other partnerships, TEFRA now required that the audit be conducted at the partnership level, which means adjustments were to be made to partnership income and deductions, with amended K-1’s then issued to the review-year partners.  The regime was now partnership-level audits with partner-level assessments.  In other words, those partners whose actions caused the additional tax were the ones responsible for paying it.

In addition, under TEFRA, over-100 partner partnerships could elect to have partnership-level assessments, that is, additional tax paid not by review-year partners but by current, “audit-year” partners (under the Electing Large Partnership Audit rules that were also repealed by the BBA).  This would result in a partnership-level audit and partnership-level assessment.

Unfortunately, over the years the IRS found partner-level collection difficult, and Congress has now responded by consolidating not only the audit but also the collection of tax at the partnership level.  In other words, the collection of tax is now made from audit-year partners, or partners having interest in the partnership in the year it is being audited.  This may be fine for small static family partnerships whose partners do not change, but it is not fine for large dynamic partnerships with ever-changing ownership interests.

A partnership representative (PR), rather than TEFRA’s Tax Matters Partner (TMP), now controls the conduct of the audit at the partnership level.  Neither the IRS nor the PR is statutorily obligated to give notice or audit rights to the other partners, a response to the IRS’ desire to streamline the audit without too many administrative hurdles.

An additional change in IRS’ favor is that there is no longer an automatic exemption from the consolidated audit for under-10 partnerships.  Now the burden is on the partnership to make an annual election out of the BBA rules under Section 6221 of the Internal Revenue Code.  The election can only be made by partnerships having fewer than 100 partners and those partners have to be individuals, C corporations, S corporations, tax-exempt entities or estates of partners.  When such an election out of the BBA is made and an audit arises that year, the partnership will essentially have a pre-TEFRA audit at the partner-level (as had been the case for under-10 partnerships under TEFRA).  The catch?  If the partnership has other partnerships or trusts as partners, it cannot elect out of the BBA consolidated rules no matter its size or preference.

If a partnership cannot elect out of the BBA rules because of its size or composition of its partners, it can still elect under Section 6226 to “push-out” payments of the additional tax assessed from the audit-year to the review-year partners.  The push-out election essentially replicates the TEFRA regime of partnership-level audit and partner-level payment.

Note that the rules are not clear on whether multi-tier partnerships can push-out payment to the ultimate partners.  The IRS has indicated the push-out will not automatically reach the ultimate partners unless the partnership can provide sufficient information about the tiers of income and loss allocations.

The new rules upend the status quo, affect countless existing partnership agreements, and create additional liability for purchasers of partnership interests.  At the same time, the new rules potentially create additional leverage for controlling partners.  All these considerations need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to amend existing agreements and draft robust new ones for the future under the new regime.