Last week’s post explored the federal income tax consequences to a taxpayer who failed to timely file an election for the classification of his wholly-owned business entity.
Today’s post considers how one taxpayer sought to utilize the IRS’s business entity classification rules to reduce his estate’s exposure for NY estate tax. Individuals who are not domiciled in NY (“nonresidents”), but who operate a NY business, should familiarize themselves with NY’s response to the taxpayer’s proposed plan.
Situs of an LLC Interest
NY had previously ruled in an advisory opinion that a membership interest in a single-member LLC (“SMLLC”) that owned NY real property, and that was disregarded for federal income tax purposes, would be treated as real property – not as an intangible – for NY estate tax purposes.
The opinion also held that when a SMLLC makes an election to be treated as an association (taxable as a corporation) pursuant to the IRS’s “check-the-box” rules, the membership interest in the SMLLC would be treated as intangible property.
It concluded that the election that is in place on the date of the single member’s death is the election that will be used to determine whether the interest in the SMLLC is treated as real property or as intangible property for purposes of NY’s estate tax.
A recent NY advisory opinion addressed Taxpayer’s question whether a membership interest in a SMLLC would be treated as intangible property for NY estate tax purposes where the SMLLC initially elects to be disregarded for income tax purposes but, immediately upon the single member’s death, retroactively elects to be treated as an association taxable as a corporation.
Electing to Change Tax Status – and Situs?
Taxpayer represented that he was currently a NY resident, but that he planned to move to another state. At that time, Taxpayer would transfer his NY real property into a SMLLC, of which he would be the sole member. This SMLLC would not elect to be treated as an association for federal income tax purposes. Thus, it would be treated as a disregarded entity, and Taxpayer would continue to be treated as the owner of the real property.
Taxpayer also represented that he intended to remain the sole owner of the LLC for the remainder of his life, and to continue to have the SMLLC treated as a disregarded entity until his death. This would enable Taxpayer to claim on his personal income tax return the income and deductions associated with the real property.
Upon his death, Taxpayer’s Last Will and Testament would direct his executor to elect that the SMLLC be taxed as an association, and as an S-corporation, for income tax purposes. These elections would have retroactive effect to at least one day prior to the date of Taxpayer’s death.
Before we consider NY’s response to Taxpayer’s proposal, let’s first review the application of NY’s estate tax to nonresident decedents, as well as the IRS’s entity classification rules, the interplay of which is key to NY’s opinion.
The NY Estate Tax
NY imposes an estate tax on the transfer by the estate of a nonresident decedent of real property located in NY.
However, where the real property is held by a corporation or partnership, an interest in such entity has been held to constitute intangible property.
The NY Constitution prohibits the imposition of an estate tax on a nonresident’s intangible property, even if such property is located in NY. For example, securities and other intangible personal property within the state, that are not used in carrying on any business within the state by the owner, are considered to be located at the domicile of the owner for purposes of taxation.
NY’s tax law likewise provides that the NY taxable estate of a nonresident decedent does not include the value of any intangible personal property otherwise includible in the decedent’s gross estate.
The Entity Classification (“check-the-box”) Rules
Pursuant to the IRS’s entity classification rules, an entity that has a single owner, such as a SMLLC, is disregarded as an entity separate from its owner unless it elects to be classified as an association taxable as a corporation.
In other words, where no election is filed, the default classification of the SMLLC is that of a disregarded entity, one that is not deemed to be an entity separate from its owner. The SMLLC will retain this default classification until it makes an election to change its classification.
If the SMLLC is disregarded for tax purposes, its assets and activities are treated in the same manner as those of a sole proprietorship, branch, or division of the owner – the sole member is treated as the direct owner of the LLC’s assets, and is treated as conducting the LLC’s activities himself, for tax purposes.
A SMLLC may elect to be classified as other than its default classification by filing an entity classification election with the IRS. Specifically, a SMLLC may elect to be classified as an association, and thus treated as a corporation for tax purposes, by making such an entity classification election.
Such an election would be effective on the date specified by the entity on the election form, or on the date the form was filed if no such date is specified on the form. The effective date specified on the form cannot be more than 75 days prior to the date on which the election is filed, or more than 12 months after the date on which the election is filed.
“A membership interest in a SMLLC owning New York real property, which is disregarded for income tax purposes, is not treated as ‘intangible property’ for purposes of New York State estate tax purposes. However, where a SMLLC makes an election to be treated as a corporation pursuant to [the ‘check-the-box’ rules], rather than being treated as a disregarded entity, such ownership interest would be considered intangible property for New York State estate tax purposes.”
The opinion noted that there is no provision in NY law applicable to the estate tax that provides for retroactively changing an entity’s classification, in this case to be treated as an association/corporation, after the death of its sole owner. Consequently, any post-mortem, retroactive classification election would be disregarded and not treated as a valid election for NY estate tax purposes.
Based on the above analysis, the advisory opinion stated that where a SMLLC is disregarded for Federal income tax purposes, the assets and activities of the SMLLC are treated as those of the deceased nonresident sole member without regard to any post-mortem election directed by his Last Will and Testament.
Therefore, under the circumstances described above, the interest in the SMLLC owned by Taxpayer would not be treated, for NY estate tax purposes, as an intangible asset. Instead, the NY real property held by the SMLLC would continue to be treated as real property held by the Taxpayer for NY estate tax purposes, even after the retroactive classification election was filed.
The Right Answer
Although an advisory opinion is limited to the facts set forth therein, and is binding on NY only with respect to the person to whom it is issued, it is pretty clear that NY’s position regarding Taxpayer’s proposed gambit stands on fairly solid ground.
The proposal described above is premised on the fact that Taxpayer has no idea of when he will die. He wants to enjoy the flexibility of operating through a SMLLC during his life and, upon his demise, take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the entity classification rules to make a retroactive change to the LLC’s tax status and, thereby, to change the situs of his membership interest in the LLC.
Although there are several statutorily-approved post-mortem planning opportunities (for example, the 6-month alternate valuation rule), the ability to elect to change the situs of a nonresident decedent’s property for NY estate tax purposes is definitely not one of them.
A nonresident business owner who operates in NY through a SMLLC certainly should not rely upon his executor’s making a post-mortem entity classification election to “remove” his tangible assets from the reach of the NY estate tax.
An S-corporation is a viable alternative, though it is more restrictive than a SMLLC, and the S-corporation election would have to be made while the owner was still alive.
Alternatively, the owner could choose to admit a second member to the LLC – perhaps an S-corporation, wholly-owned by him, that would hold a de minimis membership interest. The LLC would be treated as a partnership for tax purposes, thereby affording the owner the desired flexibility and pass-through treatment. The LLC interest would also be treated as an intangible in the hands of the nonresident owner under the NY estate tax.
Fortunately, Taxpayer sought professional guidance, as well as NY’s opinion, before implementing the proposed gambit. It’s a lesson to be remembered.