Thursday, May 19, 2016

LLC Members and W-2s

There is a tax issue that has dogged advisors for years. 

It has to do with limited liability companies.

What sets it up is tax law from general partnerships.

A general partnership is the Gunsmoke of partnerships. The “general” does not means everybody participates. It does mean that everyone is liable if the partnership gets sued.

Whoa. There is clearly a huge downside here.

Which leads us to limited partnerships. Here only a general partner takes on that liability thing. A limited partner put his/her capital account at risk, but nothing more. Forget about signing on that bank debt.

Let’s present the granddaddy of self-employment tax law:

·        A general partner is considered self-employed and pays self-employment tax on his/her distributable income, irrespective of his/her own involvement in the trade or business.
·        A limited partner is presumed to not be involved in the trade or business of the partnership; therefore, he/she does not pay self-employment (SE)  tax on his/her distributable income.
o   There is an exception for “guaranteed payments, which is akin to a salary. Those are subject to SE tax.

How can we differentiate a general partner from a limited partner?

It is that liability thing. The entity is likely being formed under state “limited partnership” law rather than “general partnership” law. In addition, the partnership agreement will normally include a section specifying in detail that the generals run the show and the limiteds are not to speak until spoken to.

Then came the limited liability companies (LLCs).

These caused tax planners to swoon because they allowed a member to actually participate in the business without forfeiting that liability protection.

COMMENT: BTW the banks are quite aware of this. That is why the bank will likely request the member to also sign personally. Still that is preferable to being a general, where receipt of the partnership interest immediately makes you liable.

Did you catch the use of the word “member?” Equity participants in an LLC are referred to as “members,” not “partners.”

So how are LLCs taxed?

Like a partnership. 
COMMENT: I know. All we did was take that car around the block.
Let’s return to that self-employment issue: is a “member” subject to self-employment tax because he/she participates (like a general) or not subject because he/she has limited liability (like a limited)?

It would help if the IRS had published guidance in this area since the days of the Rockford Files. Many advisors, including me, reason that once the LLC is income-taxable as a partnership then it is also self-employment taxable as a partnership. That is what “like a” means. If you work there, it is self-employment income to you.

But I do not have to go far to find another accountant who disagrees with me.

What to do?

Some advisors allow their LLC member-clients to draw W-2s.

Some do not.

There is a problem, however: a member is not considered an employee. And one has to be an employee to receive a W-2.

The fallback reasoning for a long time has been that a member “is like” an employee, in the same sense that I am “like” LeBron James.

It is not technically-vigorous reasoning, and I could not guard LeBron with a squad of Marines by my side.

Then the IRS said that it would respect a single-member LLC as the employer of record, rather than going up the ownership chain to whoever the sole owner is. The IRS would henceforth treat the single-member as a corporate employer for employment taxes, although the single-member would continue to be disregarded for income tax purposes (it is confusing, I know).  The IRS included exceptions, examples and what-nots, but they did not include one that addressed LLC members directly.

The members-want-W-2s school used this notice to further argue their position. You have the LLC set-up a single-member subsidiary LLC and have the subsidiary – now considered a corporate employer – issue W-2s to the members. Voila!    

Let’s be clear why people care about this issue: estimated taxes. People do not like paying estimated taxes. It requires a chunk of money every three months. Members pay estimated taxes. Members would prefer withholding. Withholding comes out of every check, which is less painful, and don’t even talk about that three-month thing.    

The IRS has backed-off the member/W-2 issue for a long time.

However the IRS recently issued guidance that the above “parent-subsidiary” structure will not work, and taxpayers have until August 1 to comply. The IRS did this by firing its big guns: it issued Regulations. There are enhanced disclosure requirements when one takes a position contrary to Regulations, and very few practitioners care to do that. It is considered a “call me to book the audit” disclosure.

The IRS has given these advisors little more than two whole months to rope-in their errant LLC clients. 

Although the window is tight, I agree with the IRS on this one, except for that two-month thing. They feel they have floated the change long enough to alert practitioners. I would have made it effective January 1, 2017, if only for administrative ease. 

Still this is an area that needs improvement. While the IRS is concerned that member W-2s may lead to members inappropriately participating in benefit plans, there is also mounting demand for member withholding. 

Perhaps the answer is to allow withholding but to use something other than a W-2. One could design yet another 1099, and the member would attach it to his/her tax return to document the withholding. Any additional paperwork is a bother at the LLC level, but it would just join the list of bothersome things. The members wanting withholding would have to employ their powers of persuasion.

Sounds like the beginning of a compromise.

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