Friday, January 16, 2015

Does An LLC Member Pay Self-Employment Tax?

There is an issue concerning LLCs that has existed for approximately as long as I have been in the profession. I am thinking about it because I recently finished a research memo which included this issue.

This time we are talking about limited liability companies (LLCs) and self-employment income. One pays self-employment tax on self-employment income, and the dollars can add up rather quickly.

The offending party is the following enchanting prose from Code section 1402(a)(13) addressing self-employment income:
… there shall be excluded the distributive share of any item of income or loss of a limited partner, as such, other than guaranteed payments described in … "

We do not need degrees in taxation to zero in on the term “limited partner” as being the key to this car. If you are a limited partner you get to exclude “the distributive share” of something. Since the IRS wants you to pay tax on something, the less of that something is probably a good thing.

So what is a limited partner in this conversation?

We don’t know.

The above wording came from an IRS proposed Regulation in 1977. The IRS stirred such a hornet’s nest that Congress put a hold on the Regulation. The hold has long since expired, but the IRS has not wanted to walk back onto that hill. It has been 37 years.

To be fair, the playing field changed on the IRS.

Have you ever heard of the Estate of Ellsasser? Don’t worry if you haven’t, as I suspect that many tax CPAs have not. Let’s time travel back to 1976. In addition to Bob Newhart and the Carol Burnett Show, people were buying tax shelters. The shelters worked pretty well back then, long before the passive activity rules entered the game. One of those shelters used to provide one with self-employment income, on which one would pay self-employment – also known as social security – tax.

Doesn’t sound like much of a shelter, doesn’t it?

The purpose was to get social security credits for someone who had not worked, had not earned enough credits, or had not earned enough to maximize their social security benefits.

The IRS did not like this at all, because at the time it was concerned with people taking advantage of social security. That was before our government decided to bankrupt us all, which act has now switched to the IRS demanding money from anyone foolish enough to make eye contact.

You see, in those days, there were entities known as “limited partnerships” in which a general partner made all the decisions and in return the limited partners got regular checks. A limited partner had little or no sway over the management of the place. It was an investment, like buying IBM or Xerox stock. There was no way the IRS was going to let a limited partner buy social security credits on the back of a limited partnership investment. No sir. Go get a job.

Fast forward about twenty years. There is a new sheriff in town, and that sheriff is the limited liability company (LLC). The states had created these new toys, and their claim to fame is that one could both work there and limit one’s liability at the same time. Unheard of! A limited partnership could not do that. In fact, if a limited partner started working at the place he/she would lose the protection from partnership liabilities. No limited partner was going to do that voluntarily.

And there you have a tax Regulation written in the 1970s referencing a “limited” partner. Twenty years later something new appears “limiting” one’s exposure to entity liabilities, but not being at all what the IRS had in mind two decades before.

And so the question became: does an LLC member have to pay self-employment tax?

And the issue has recently compounded, because there is also a new ObamaCare tax (the additional Medicare tax of 0.9%) which applies to …. wait on it… self-employment income. Yep, it applies to something the IRS cannot even define.

And then you have tax professionals trying to work with this nonsense. We do not have the option of putting the issue on the shelf until the baby is old enough to go to college. We have to prepare tax returns annually.

So I was looking at something titled “CCA 201436049.” It is nowhere as interesting as the final season of Sons of Anarchy, but it does touch upon our magic two words from the 1970s.

BTW, a “CCA” is a “Chief Counsel Advice” and represents an internal IRS document. It cannot be cited or used as precedence, but it gives you a VERY GOOD idea of what the IRS is thinking.

In our CCA, there is company that manages mutual funds. The management company used to be an S corporation and is now an LLC. The members of the management company pretty much do all the investment activity for the mutual funds, and the management company gets paid big bucks. The management company in turn pays its members via a W-2 and then “distributes” the remaining profit to them. The members pay social security on the W-2 (same as you or I) but not on the distributive share.

OBSERVATION: For the tax purist, a partnership is not allowed to pay its partner a W-2. The reason is that a partner in a partnership is considered to be self-employed, and self-employed people do not receive W-2s. LLCs have thrown a wrench into practice, however, and it is not uncommon to see an LLC member receive a W-2.

To get a CCA, the taxpayer has to be in examination. An IRS person in the field requests direction on how to handle an issue. The issue here is whether that distributive share should be subject to self-employment tax or not. A CCA is therefore like giving instructions to IRS examiners in the field.

The IRS goes through the same tax history we talked about above, and it is very skeptical that just “limiting” someone’s liability was the intent of the 1970s Regulation. It goes on to take a look at two recent cases.

In Renkemeyer, the Tax Court determined that lawyers within a law practice did not fit the “limited partner” exception, especially since they were actively working, something a 1970s “limited partner” could not do. They had to pay self-employment taxes on their distributive income.

In Reither the taxpayer issued W-2s and argued that that was sufficient to keep the rest of the distributive income from being subject to self-employment tax. The District Court made short work of the argument, primarily because there is no statutory support for it.

So … surprise, surprise… the CCA determined that the management company’s distributive share was subject to self-employment tax.

By itself, this is not surprising. What I did notice is that the IRS is paying more attention to this issue, and it is winning its cases. How much longer can it be before Congress finds this “new” source of tax revenue?

Granted, I think the odds of any meaningful tax legislation between Congress and this White House to be close to zero. There will be at least a couple of years.  That said, I suspect that tax planners have only so many years left to ramp this car onto the interstate before Congress takes our keys away.

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