S corporation compensation requirements are often misunderstood and abused by owner-shareholders. An S corporation is a type of business structure in which the business does not pay income tax at the corporate level and instead distributes (passes through) the income, gains, losses, and deductions to the shareholders for inclusion on their individual income tax returns. If there are gains, these distributions are considered return on investment and therefore are not subject to self-employment taxes.
However, if stockholders also work in the business, they are supposed to take reasonable compensation for their services in the form of wages, and of course, wages are subject to FICA (Social Security and Medicare) and other payroll taxes. This is where some owner-shareholders err by not paying themselves a reasonable compensation for the services they provide, some out of unfamiliarity with the requirements and some purposely to avoid the payroll taxes.
The Internal Revenue Code establishes that any officer of a corporation, including S corporations, is an employee of the corporation for federal employment tax purposes. S corporations should not attempt to avoid paying employment taxes by having their officers treat their compensation as cash distributions, payments of personal expenses, and/or loans rather than as wages.
If the S corporation does not pay its working stockholders a reasonable compensation for their services, then the IRS generally will treat a portion of the S corporation's distributions as wages and impose Social Security taxes on the deemed wages.
There is no specific method for determining what constitutes reasonable compensation, and it is based upon facts and circumstances. Generally, it is an amount that unrelated employers would pay for comparable services under like circumstances and based upon the cost of living in the area where the business is located. The following are just some of the many factors that would be taken into account in making this determination:
- Training and experience
- Duties and responsibilities
- Time and effort devoted to the business
- Dividend history
- Payments to non-shareholder employees
- Timing and manner of paying bonuses to key people
- What comparable businesses pay for similar services
- Compensation agreements
- The use of a formula to determine compensation
The problem here, of course, is that it is easy for the IRS to list contributing factors used by the courts in determining reasonable compensation and leave it to the corporation to quantify these factors into a reasonable salary but still have the ability to challenge the selected amount later if an auditor, off the top of their head, decides the compensation is unreasonable.
The IRS has a long history of examining S corporation tax returns to ensure that reasonable compensation is being paid, particularly if no compensation is shown being paid to employee-stockholders.
Reasonable Compensation in the Spotlight – With the passage of tax reform, reasonable compensation will be in the spotlight because of the new deduction for 20% of pass-through income. This new Sec. 199A deduction is equal to 20% of qualified business income (QBI) and will figure intro the shareholder’s income tax return. The QBI for the stockholder of an S-corporation is the amount of net income passed through to the stockholder and designated as QBI on the K-1, but the stockholder may not include the reasonable compensation (wages) he or she was paid as QBI. Thus, wages paid to stockholders actually reduce the QBI because the S corporation deducts the wages as a business expense, therefore reducing the corporation’s net income and QBI. But that does not mean wages can be arbitrarily adjusted to maximize the Sec. 199A deduction.
IRC Sec. 199A Deduction – Here are some details about how the 199A deduction works and the impact of the reasonable compensation wages on the Sec. 199A deduction:
- The S corporation’s employee-stockholder’s wages are NOT included in qualified business income (QBI) when computing the 199A deduction. Thus, the larger the wages, the smaller the K-1 flow-through income (QBI) and thus the smaller the 199A deduction, which is 20% of QBI. In this case, an S corporation would tend to pay the stockholder a smaller salary to maximize the flow-through income and, as a result, the 199A deduction.
- If married taxpayers filing a joint return have taxable income that exceeds $315,000 ($157,500 for other filing statuses), the 199A deduction begins to be subject to a wage limitation, and once the taxable income for married taxpayers filing a joint return exceeds $415,000 ($207,500 for other filing statuses), the 199A deduction becomes the lesser of 20% of the QBI or the wage limitation. For these high-income taxpayers, an S corporation will tend to pay stockholders less wage income for them to benefit from the Sec. 199A deduction.
- If an S corporation is a specified service trade or business, the Sec. 199A deduction phases out for married taxpayers filing a joint return with taxable income between $315,000 and $415,000 (between $157,500 and $207,500 for other filing statuses). And although the wage limitation is used in computing the phase out, once the taxpayer’s taxable income exceeds $415,000 ($207,500 for other filing statuses), the taxpayer will receive no benefit from the wage limitation and therefore would again want to minimize their reasonable compensation to minimize FICA taxes. Specified service trades or businesses (SSTBs) include those in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, athletics, consulting, and financial services (for more information on what constitutes an SSTB, please call).
Of course, taxpayers cannot pick and choose a reasonable level of compensation to minimize taxes or maximize deductions. Therein lies a trap for taxpayers who do not consider the factors related to reasonable compensation. There are commercial firms that have the data necessary to determine reasonable compensation and specialize in doing so. These firms can be found by searching the Internet for “reasonable compensation.” Even the IRS has employed these firms to provide reasonable compensation data in tax court cases.
If you want additional information related to reasonable compensation, please feel free to contact one of our CPAs at (616) 642-9467 or request a complimentary accounting consultation.
Photograph: Simon Tullstedt