Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Qualified Small Business Stock Exemption

Let’s say that you are going to start your own company. You talk to me about different ways to organize:

(1) Sole proprietor – you wake up in the morning, get in your car and go out there and shake hands. There is no paperwork to file, unless you want to get a separate tax ID number. You and your proprietorship are alter-egos. If it gets sued, you get sued.
(2) Limited liability company – you stick that proprietorship in a single-member LLC, writing a check to your attorney and secretary of state for the privilege. You gain little to nothing tax-wise, but you may have helped your attorney (and yourself) if you ever get sued.
(3) Form a corporation - a corporation is the old-fashioned way to limit your liability. Once again there is a check to your attorney and secretary of state. Corporations have been out there long before LLCs walked the land.

You then have to make a decision as to the tax flavor of your corporation: 

a.    The “C” corporation – think Krogers, Proctor & Gamble and Macy’s. The C is a default for the big boys – and many non-bigs. There are some goodies here if you are into tax-free reorganizations, spin-offs and fancy whatnot.

Problem is that the C pays its own tax. You as the shareholder then pay tax a second time when you take money out (think a dividend) from the C.  This is not an issue when there are a million shareholders. It may be an issue when it is just you.

b.    The “S” corporation – geared more to the closely-held crowd. The S (normally) does not pay tax. Its income is instead included on your personal tax return. Own 65% of an S and you will pay tax on 65% of its income, along with your own W-2, interest, dividends and other income.
This makes your personal return somewhat a motley, as it will combine personal, investment and business income into one. Don’t be surprised if you are considered big-bucks by the business-illiterate crowd.

The S has been the go-to corporate choice for family-owned corporations since I have been in practice. A key reason is avoiding that double-tax.

But you can avoid the double tax by taking out all profits through salaries, right?

There is a nerdy issue here, but let’s say you are right.

Who cares then?

You will. When you sell your company.

Think about it. You spend years building a business. You are now age 65. You sell it for crazy money. The corporation pays tax. It distributes whatever cash it has left-over to you.

You pay taxes again.

And you vividly see the tax viciousness of the C corporation.

How many times are you going to flog this horse? Apple is a multinational corporation with a quarter of a trillion dollars in the bank. Your corporate office is your dining room.

The C stinks on the way out.

Except ….

Let’s talk Section 1202, which serves as a relief valve for many C corporation shareholders when they sell.

You are hosed on the first round of tax. That tax is on the corporation and Section 1202 will not touch it.

But it will touch the second round, which is the tax on you personally.

The idea is that a percentage of the gain will be excluded if you meet all the requirements.

What is the percentage?

Nowadays it is 100%. It has bounced around in prior years, however.

That 100% exclusion gets you back to S corporation territory. Sort of.

So what are the requirements?

There are several:

(1) You have to be a noncorporate shareholder. Apple is not invited to this soiree.
(2) You have owned the stock from day one … that is, when stock was issued (with minimal exceptions, such as a gift).
(3) The company can be only so big. Since big is described as $50 million, you can squeeze a good-sized business in there. BTW, this limit applies when you receive the stock, not when you sell it.
(4) The corporation and you consent to have Section 1202 apply.
(5) You have owned the stock for at least 5 years.
(6) Only certain active trades or businesses qualify.

Here are trades or businesses that will not qualify under requirement (5):

(1) A hotel, motel, restaurant or similar company.
(2) A farm.
(3) A bank, financing, leasing or similar company.
(4) Anything where depletion is involved.
(5) A service business, such as health, law, actuarial science or accounting.

A CPA firm cannot qualify as a Section 1202, for example.

Then there is a limit on the excludable gain. The maximum exclusion is the greater of:

(1) $10 million or
(2) 10 times your basis in the stock

Frankly, I do not see a lot of C’s – except maybe legacy C’s – anymore, so it appears that Section 1202 has been insufficient to sway many advisors, at least those outside Silicon Valley.

To be fair, however, this Code section has a manic history. It appears and disappears, its percentages change on a whim, and its neck-snapping interaction with the alternative minimum tax have soured many practitioners.  I am one of them.

I can give you a list of reasons why. Here are two:

(1) You and I start the company.
(2) I buy your stock when you retire.
(3) I sell the company.

I get Section 1202 treatment on my original stock but not on the stock I purchased from you.

Here is a second:

(1) You and I start the company.
(2) You and I sell the company for $30 million.

We can exclude $20 million, meaning we are back to ye-old-double-tax with the remaining $10 million.

Heck with that. Make it an S corporation and we get a break on all our stock.

What could make me change my mind?

Lower the C corporation tax rate from 35%.

Trump has mentioned 15%, although that sounds a bit low.

But it would mean that the corporate rate would be meaningfully lower than the individual rate. Remember that an S pays tax at an individual rate. That fact alone would make me consider a C over an S.

Section 1202 would then get my attention.

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