By now, most readers have heard about the benefits and pitfalls of “checking the box” or of failing to do so. Of course, I am referring to the election afforded certain unincorporated business entities to change their status for tax purposes. Thus, for example, an LLC with one or more members – which is otherwise treated as a disregarded entity or as a partnership – may elect to be treated as an association taxable as a corporation; an association that has one member may elect to be treated as an entity that is disregarded for tax purposes, while an association with at least two members may elect to be treated as a partnership.
Each of these elections triggers certain income tax consequences of which its owners have to be aware prior to making the election; for instance, an association that elects to be treated as a disregarded entity or as a partnership is treated as having undergone a liquidation, which may be taxable to the entity and to its owner(s).
Although incorporated entities are not eligible to check the box, they may nevertheless desire to change their tax status – i.e., the legal form through which they conduct business[ii]; for example, they may, instead, want to operate as a partnership; conversely, a partnership may desire to “incorporate.” The conversion of a corporation into a partnership constitutes a taxable liquidation, while the incorporation of a partnership may generally be accomplished on a tax-deferred basis.
But what if a business wanted to preserve its flexibility to change its tax status by switching from one form of legal entity to another, depending upon the circumstances?
The IRS foresaw that the ability to change the tax status of a business whenever it suited the owners to do so may lead to abuse. Thus, the check-the-box rules provide that an eligible entity may not elect, as a matter of right, to change its status more than once within any five-year period; similarly, a corporation that loses or revokes its “S” corporation status may not, without the permission of the IRS, elect to again be treated as an S corporation for five years.
A recent Tax Court decision involved a limited liability partnership (“LLP”) that actually shifted its business (“Business”) into a professional corporation (“PC”) – it did not check the box – then, about five years later, shifted it back to LLP. In making these shifts, the owners of these business entities – who remained the same – kept both entities in existence notwithstanding the transfers of Business between them.
Interestingly, the dispute before the Court did not involve the income tax consequences arising from the “conversion” but, rather, the overpayment of employment taxes by LLP and the underpayment of such taxes by PC.
In Year One, four individuals engaged in Business through LLP. In Year Two, they operated through LLP for only two weeks, at which point they commenced operations through newly-formed PC (a C-corporation).
Although LLP ceased conducting ongoing operations, it was maintained for the purpose of collecting revenues, satisfying liabilities, and distributing profits related to LLP’s work.
PC conducted Business from that point forward through the end of Year Two. LLP paid wages to its employees for the first quarter of Year Two (“Quarter”), but the employment tax deposits it made for that period exceeded the wages paid.
The employees who were paid wages by LLP for the first two weeks of Quarter received the balance of their wages during Quarter from PC. Although PC’s general ledger recorded the employment tax deposits made, its payroll services provider that made the employment tax deposits, erroneously submitted them under LLP’s EIN.
The IRS credited LLP’s account for the employment tax deposits made by LLP; it also recorded that LLP timely filed a Form 941, Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return. However, the IRS’s account for PC recorded no employment tax deposits or filings for Quarter.
The IRS’s account transcripts for LLP’s three remaining quarters for Year Two indicated that LLP had neither filed Forms 941 nor reported any employment tax liabilities for those quarters, while PC’s account transcripts for the same quarters indicated that PC had timely filed Forms 941 and made employment tax deposits for each quarter.
In Year Five, Business was again moved to LLP, while PC was kept alive in order to collect receivables, satisfy payables, and distribute profits relating to PC’s work. Hmm.
In Year Seven, the IRS notified PC that there was no record of PC’s having filed a Form 941 for Quarter. PC used its general ledger to prepare the Form 941, which reported the correct amount of employment tax due, and claimed a credit for employment tax deposits made, on the basis of entries in PC’s general ledger for wages paid and employment tax deposits made. The IRS assessed the employment taxes reported as due but did not credit PC with the employment tax deposits claimed.
PC thereafter sought to correct the Form 941 filed by LLP, claiming adjustments for LLP’s overpayment of employment taxes for Quarter based on the wages actually paid and the amounts actually owing thereon. PC also requested that a credit be applied to its employment tax liability for Quarter.
The IRS informed PC that a credit for LLP’s claimed overpayment could not be applied as requested because the period of limitations for claiming a refund had expired.
PC contended that the Quarter’s employment tax liability the IRS sought to collect had been previously paid by LLP, a related entity, which entitled PC to a credit, refund, setoff or equitable recoupment for the asserted liability.
PC explained that, through the error of its payroll service provider, PC’s employment tax deposits during Quarter had been remitted under the EIN of LLP, an entity through which the business had previously conducted its operations. PC further contended that PC should be credited with the Quarter’s deposits that had been erroneously submitted under LLP’s EIN through equitable recoupment.
In addition, PC tried to explain why both LLP and PC had been maintained as active entities during Year Two and thereafter, with each entity being used at various times to conduct the bulk of Business’s operations.
The IRS concluded that (i) PC had failed to sufficiently explain the continued active status of LLP, and (ii) because PC and LLP were both active entities, it would not be appropriate to allow PC to offset any of its employment tax liability with deposits LLP had made.
PC petitioned the Tax Court for review of the IRS’s determination. The issue for decision was whether PC was entitled to offset its unpaid employment tax liability for Quarter with the employment tax that LLP overpaid for Quarter.
“Long story short,” as they say, the Tax Court found that PC was entitled to offset the employment tax liability that the IRS sought to collect from it with the overpayment of employment tax made by LLP for the same period, the refund of which was time-barred. Without this offset, the Court stated, the IRS would have twice collected the employment taxes for Quarter arising from the payment of wages to the employees of Business: once from the deposits made under LLP’s EIN for Quarter, and a second time from the proposed levy on PC’s property.
The Court explained that the judicially-created doctrine of equitable recoupment applied to PC’s situation.[iv] In coming to that conclusion, the Court considered the documentary evidence submitted by PC regarding the organizational history of Business, including its alternating use of LLP and PC as its principal operating entity, with the other entity maintained for the purpose of collecting revenues and paying liabilities arising from past work. This alternating use, the Court observed, was substantiated with copies of each entity’s income tax returns for several years, demonstrating that the bulk of Business’s income was received through only one of the two entities in any given year.
According to the Court, when each entity’s general ledger for Quarter was compared to the IRS’s corresponding account transcripts, they conclusively established PC’s equitable recoupment claim. Specifically, the general ledgers demonstrated that PC was the source of the employment tax payments for Quarter that created LLP’s overpayment, and PC paid the wages that gave rise to the employment tax liability that was paid under LLP’s EIN.
Shape-Shifting, At Will?
The Court’s decision was all well and good for PC’s and LLP’s owners.
But what about the shifting of Business from LLP to PC, and then back to LLP? Specifically, what about the income tax consequences resulting from the “incorporation” of LLP and the “liquidation” of PC? The Court made no mention of these whatsoever, which begs several question.
Did the LLP liabilities assumed or taken subject to by PC exceed the adjusted bases of the assets “contributed” by LLP to PC? Did the fair market value of PC’s assets exceed their adjusted bases, or the owners’ adjusted bases for their shares of PC stock? The decision does not indicate whether LLP, PC, or their owners reported any gain on the transfer of “Business” between PC and LLP.
Indeed, was there any transfer of assets at all, other than a transfer of employees? Is that why the-then existing receivables and payables remained with LLP in Year Two and with PC in Year Five?
Did LLP’s/PC’s tangible personal properties remain in one entity, and were these leased or subleased to the other entity when Business was shifted to that entity? Was the real property they occupied leased or subleased between them? Was a market or below-market rate charged for the use or assignment? Or were these properties sold or exchanged for consideration?
What about projects that were ongoing at the time of the shift – how were these handled? What about the goodwill associated with Business – how was it transferred? Or did the goodwill reside with the individual owners of LLP and PC (so-called “personal goodwill”), and not with the entities?
Of course, these issues were not before the Court, but the “identity of interest” among PC, LLP, and their owners underpinned the Court’s decision. It is clear from the decision that LLP and PC operated a single Business, that their owners were identical, that the entities used the same name (but for the “PC” versus “LLP” designation), and that they employed the same individuals.[v]
What, then, was the impetus for the owners of LLP and PC to shift the operation of Business between the two entities? It wasn’t the nature of a particular project – for example, the complexity of the project, or the degree of liability exposure – after all, only one entity was active at any one time; the owners did not assign some projects to LLP and others to PC. Was there another business reason at work? Or was the shifting based upon some undisclosed tax considerations?
Whatever the reasons for LLP’s and PC’s actions, the owners of a closely held business should not think, based upon the underlying facts of the above decision, that they may freely, and without adverse tax consequences, shift the operation of a single business between two commonly-controlled entities simply by “turning off” one entity and “turning on” the other. The use of “successor” entities to a single business without a significant change in beneficial ownership of the business is an invitation to trouble with the IRS.
Indeed, even the allocation of projects among two or more commonly-controlled entities engaged in a single business may generate adverse tax results.
The owners should first consider why they would allocate projects – is it only for tax savings, or is there a bona fide business reason? For example, as mentioned above, does one entity engage in one aspect of a business, such as design, while another handles another aspect, such as construction? Or does one entity handle higher-end work, and markets or brands itself accordingly, while the other takes care of “lesser” jobs? Does one entity assume riskier projects and is insured therefor, while the other gets the plain-vanilla assignments?
Assuming there is a bona fide business reason for the allocation of work among the controlled entities, the owners will still have to consider how to allocate the resources of the business among these entities, and for what consideration; for example, if the equipment necessary for the completion of a project resides in an entity other than the one engaged in the project, how will the equipment be made available and at what price; what about employees and overhead, such as office space?
In every case, the owners of the related entities need to consider the business reason for the allocation of work to one entity as opposed to another; then they have to consider the tax consequences thereof and how to deal with them.
[i] Fear not, we’re talking tax, not Kafka.
[ii] By contrast, some entities may seek to change their legal form (for example, switching from a corporation to an LLC as a matter of state law), while maintaining their tax status. Thus, the merger a corporation into an LLC that has elected to be taxed as a corporation may qualify as an F-reorganization; the entity remains a corporation for tax purposes, but it is now governed by the state rules applicable to limited liability companies rather than those applicable to corporations.
[iii] Fear not, we’re talking tax, not “The Exorcist.”
[iv] The doctrine operates as a defense that may be asserted by a taxpayer to raise a time-barred refund claim as an offset to reduce the amount owed on the IRS’s timely claim of a deficiency, thereby preventing an inequitable windfall to the IRS. In general, a taxpayer claiming the benefit of an equitable recoupment defense must establish the following elements: (1) the overpayment for which recoupment is sought by way of offset is barred by an expired period of limitations; (2) the time-barred overpayment arose out of the same transaction, item, or taxable event as the deficiency before the Court; (3) the transaction, item, or taxable event was inconsistently subjected to two taxes; and (4) if the transaction, item, or taxable event involves two or more taxpayers, there is sufficient identity of interest between the taxpayers subject to the two taxes that the taxpayers should be treated as one.
[v] Courts may, in certain circumstances, permit a taxpayer to recoup an erroneously paid tax that the taxpayer did not pay himself. But the payor of the tax and the recipient of the recoupment must have a sufficient identity of interest such that they should be treated as a single taxpayer in equity.
Though LLP and PC were separate legal entities with distinct EINs during Quarter, each was owned by the same individuals during that period. Consequently, the burden of double taxation would be borne by the same individuals. Therefore, PC demonstrated sufficient identity of interest with LLP to allow PC to recoup the employment tax for Quarter that LLP overpaid.