Decisions, Decisions

The reduction in the Federal income tax rate for C corporations, from a maximum of 35-percent to a flat 21-percent, along with several other changes made by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (the “Act”) that generally reflect a pro-C corporation bias, have caused the owners of many pass-through entities (“PTEs”) to reconsider the continuing status of such entities as S corporations, partnerships, and sole proprietorships.

Among the factors being examined by owners and their advisers are the following:

  • the PTE is not itself a taxable entity, and the maximum Federal income rate applicable to its individual owners on their pro rata share of a PTE’s ordinary operating income is 37-percent[i], as compared to the 21-percent rate for a C corporation;
  • the owners of a PTE may be able to reduce their Federal tax rate to as low as 29.6-percent if they can take advantage of the “20-percent of qualified business income deduction”;
  • a PTE’s distribution of income that has already been taxed to its owners is generally not taxable[ii], while a C corporation’s distribution of its after-tax earnings will generally be taxable to its owners at a Federal rate of 23.8%, for an effective combined corporate and shareholder rate of 39.8%;
  • the capital gain from the sale of a PTE’s assets will generally not be taxable to the PTE[iii], and will generally be subject to a Federal tax rate of 20-percent in the hands of its owners[iv], while the same transaction by a C corporation, followed by a liquidating distribution to its shareholders, will generate a combined tax rate of 39.8%.[v]

The application of these considerations to the unique facts circumstances of a particular business may cause its owners to arrive at a different conclusion than will the owners of another business that appears to be similarly situated.

Even within a single business, there may be disagreement among its owners as to which form of business organization, or which tax status, would optimize the owners’ economic benefit, depending upon their own individual tax situation and appetite.[vi]

In the past, this kind of disagreement in the context of a closely held business has often resulted in litigation of the kind that spawned the discovery issue described below. The changes made by the Act are certain to produce more than their share of similar intra-business litigation as owners disagree over the failure of their business to make or revoke certain tax elections, as well as its failure to reorganize its “corporate” structure.

A Taste of Things to Come?

Corporation was created to invest in the development, production, and sale of a product. Among its shareholders was a limited partnership (“LP”), of which Plaintiff was the majority owner.

Plaintiff asserted that Corporation’s management (“Defendants”) had breached their fiduciary duty to LP and the other shareholders. This claim was based upon the fact that Corporation was a C corporation and, as such, its dividend distributions to LP were taxable to LP’s members, based upon their respective ownership interest of LP.[vii]

Plaintiff claimed that this “double taxation” of Corporation’s earnings – once to Corporation and again upon its distribution as a dividend to its shareholders – had cost the business and its owners millions of dollars over the years, was “unnecessary,” had reduced the value of LP, and could have been avoided if Corporation had been converted into an S corporation, at which point LP would have distributed its shares of Corporation stock to its members, who were individuals.

Plaintiff stated that it had made repeated requests to Defendants to “eliminate this waste,” but to no avail.

Thus, one of the forms of relief requested by Plaintiff was “[p]ermanent injunctive relief compelling the Defendants to take all appropriate actions necessary to eliminate the taxable status of [Corporation] that results in an unnecessary level of taxation on distributions to the limited partners of [LP].”

“Prove It”

Defendants asked the Court to compel Plaintiff to produce Plaintiff’s tax returns for any tax year as to which Plaintiff claimed to have suffered damages based upon Corporation’s tax status.

Defendants asserted that, in order to measure any damages that were suffered by Plaintiff by reason of Corporation’s status, Defendants needed certain information regarding Plaintiff’s taxes, including Plaintiff’s “tax rate, deductions, credits and the like.”

Plaintiff responded that their “tax returns have no conceivable relevance to any aspect of this case.” Among other reasons, Plaintiff asserted that the action was brought derivatively on behalf of LP such that Plaintiff’s personal tax returns were not germane.

Defendants countered that, even if Plaintiff’s claims were asserted derivatively, the tax returns nevertheless were relevant since Plaintiff was a member of LP, the entity on whose behalf the claims were made.

The Court’s Decision

According to the Court, tax returns in the possession of a taxpayer are not immune from civil discovery. It noted, however, that courts generally are “reluctant to order the production of personal financial documents and have imposed a heightened standard for the discovery of tax returns.”

The Court explained that a party seeking to compel production of tax returns in civil cases must meet a two-part test; specifically, it must demonstrate that:

  • the returns are relevant to the subject matter of the action; and
  • there is a compelling need for the returns because the information contained therein is not otherwise readily obtainable.

Limited partnerships, the Court continued, “are taxed as ‘pass-through’ entities, do not pay any income tax, but instead file information returns and reports to each partner on his or her pro-rata share of all income, deductions, gains, losses, credits and other items.” The partner then reports those items on his or her individual income tax return. “The limited partnership serves as a conduit through which the income tax consequences of a project or enterprise are passed through to the individual partners.”

The Court found that Plaintiff’s tax returns were relevant to the claims asserted. The crux of Plaintiff’s argument regarding Corporation’s status, the Court stated, was that LP’s partners, including Plaintiff, were subject to “double taxation” and were thereby damaged.

The Court also found that Defendants had established a compelling need. The Court was satisfied that, in order for Defendants to ascertain whether or not Plaintiff, who owned a majority interest in LP, would have paid less tax if Corporation had been converted to an S corporation, Plaintiff had to produce their tax returns to Defendants. The tax returns would disclose, among other things, Plaintiff’s tax rate, deductions and credits that affected the tax due by Plaintiff.

Furthermore, the Court continued, Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that there were alternative sources from which to obtain the information. “While the party seeking discovery of the tax returns bears the burden of establishing relevance, the party resisting disclosure should bear the burden of establishing alternative sources for the information.”

Any concerns that existed regarding the private nature of the information contained in the tax returns could be addressed, the Court stated, by making the tax returns subject to the terms of the “stipulation and order of confidentiality” previously entered in the case.[viii]

Accordingly, the Court granted Defendants’ motion.

What’s Good for the Goose?

For years, oppressed or disgruntled shareholders and partners have often found in the tax returns of the business, of which they are owners, the clues, leads, or circumstantial evidence that help support their claims of mismanagement or worse by those in control of the business.

As a result of the Act, it is likely that some non-controlling owners will find cause for questioning or challenging the “choice of entity” decisions made on behalf of the business by its controlling owners.[ix]

In some cases, their concerns will be validated by what turn out to be true instances of oppression intended to cause economic harm and, perhaps, to force out the intended target.

In others, however, the controlling owner’s decision will have been reached only after a lot of due diligence, including financial modelling and consulting with tax advisers. In such cases, the controlling owner may want to examine the complaining party’s tax return, as in the Court’s decision described above, so as to ascertain whether the loss claimed was actually suffered.

It bears repeating, though, that even if the tax return information may be relevant to the controlling owner’s defense, there is a judicial bias against the disclosure of such information that is manifested in the application of “a heightened standard for the discovery of tax returns.” As stated earlier, the requesting party has to demonstrate that there is a “strong necessity” for the returns, and that the return information is not readily obtainable from other sources.

In the end, the best course of action for the “choice-of-entity” decision-maker, and their best defense against any claims of oppression or mismanagement, is to demonstrate that they acted reasonably and responsibly; they should thoroughly document the decision-process, and explain the basis for their decision. With that, a potential owner-claimant would be hard-pressed to second-guess them with any reasonable likelihood of success.


[i] If the PTE’s business is a passive activity with respect to the owner, the 3.8% Federal surtax on net investment income may also apply, bumping their maximum Federal tax rate up from 37% to 40.8%.

[ii] Because of the upward basis adjustment to the owner’s partnership interest or S corp. stock resulting from the inclusion of the PTE’s income or gain in the owner’s gross income.

[iii] There are exceptions; for example, the built-in gains tax for S corps. https://www.taxlawforchb.com/2013/09/s-corp-sales-built-in-gain-and-2013/ . In addition, the gain from the sale of certain assets may generate ordinary income that would be taxable to the PTE’s owners at a Federal rate of 37%; for example, depreciation recapture.

[iv] But see endnote i, supra.

[v] The operating income and capital gain of a C corporation are taxed at the same rate; there is no preferential Federal capital gain rate as in the case of individuals.

[vi] You may have heard your own clients debating the pros and cons of spinning off “divisions” so as to position themselves for maximizing the deduction based on qualified business income. All this before the issuance of any guidance by the IRS (which is expected later this month), though the Service intimated last month that taxpayers may not be pleased with its position regarding such spin-offs.

[vii] See the third bullet point, above.

[viii] Such an order may be used in cases requiring the exchange, as part of the discovery process, of what the parties to the law suit believe is confidential information.

[ix] For example, a shareholder of an S corporation that does not make distributions, who is not employed by the business, who is a passive investor in the business, and whose pro rata share of the corporation’s income is subject to federal tax at a rate of 40.8%, may wonder why the controlling shareholder does not agree to revoke the “S” election, to at least start making tax distributions.

Pro “C” Corporation Bias?

Although closely-held businesses have generally welcomed the TCJA’s[i] amendments to the Code relating to the taxation of business income, many are also frustrated by the complexity of some of these changes. Among the provisions that have drawn the most criticism on this count are the changes to the taxation of business income arising from the foreign (“outbound”) activities of U.S. persons.

Because more and more closely-held U.S. businesses, including many S corporations, have been establishing operations overseas – whether through branches or corporate subsidiaries[ii] – the impact of these changes cannot be underestimated.

Moreover, their effect may be more keenly felt by closely-held U.S. businesses that are treated as pass-through entities[iii]; in other words, there appears to be a bias in the TCJA in favor of C corporations.

Overview: Deferred Recognition of Foreign Income – Pre-TCJA

In general, the U.S. has taxed U.S. persons on their worldwide income, although there has been some deferral of the taxation of the foreign-sourced income[iv] earned by the foreign corporate (“FC”) subsidiaries of U.S. businesses.[v]

The Code defines a “U.S. person” to include U.S. citizens and residents.[vi] A corporation or partnership is treated as a U.S. person if it is organized or created under the laws of the U.S. or of any State.[vii]

In general, income earned directly by a U.S. person from the conduct of a foreign business – for example, through the operation of a branch in a foreign jurisdiction – is taxed on a current basis.[viii]

Historically, however, active foreign business income earned indirectly by a U.S. person, through a FC subsidiary, generally has not been subject to U.S. tax until the income is distributed as a dividend to the U.S. person – unless an anti-deferral rule applies.

The CFC Regime

The main U.S. anti-tax-deferral regime, which addresses the taxation of income earned by controlled foreign corporations (“CFC”), may cause some U.S. persons who own shares of stock of a CFC to be taxed currently on certain categories of income earned by the CFC, regardless of whether the income has been distributed to them as a dividend.[ix]

CFC

A CFC is defined as any FC if U.S. persons own (directly, indirectly, or constructively[x]) more than 50-percent of the corporation’s stock (measured by vote or value), taking into account only those U.S. persons who own at least 10-percent of the FC’s stock (measured by vote or value; each a “United States shareholder” or “USS”).[xi]

Subpart F Income

Under the CFC rules, the U.S. generally taxes the USS of a CFC on their pro rata shares of the CFC’s “subpart F income,” without regard to whether the income is distributed to the shareholders. In effect, the U.S. treats the USS of a CFC as having received a current distribution of the CFC’s subpart F income.

In the case of most USS, subpart F income generally includes “foreign base company income,” which consists of “foreign personal holding company income” (such as dividends, interest, rents, and royalties), and certain categories of income from business operations that involve transactions with “related persons,” including “foreign base company sales income” and “foreign base company services income.”[xii]

One exception to the definition of subpart F income permits continued U.S.-tax-deferral for income received by a CFC in certain transactions with a related corporation organized and operating in the same foreign country in which the CFC is organized (the “same country exception”). Another exception is available for any item of income received by a CFC if the taxpayer establishes that the income was subject to an effective foreign income tax rate greater than 90-percent of the maximum U.S. corporate income tax rate (the “high-tax exception”).[xiii]

Actual Distributions

A USS may exclude from its income actual distributions of earnings and profits (“E&P”) from the CFC that were previously included in the USS’s income under the CFC regime.[xiv] Ordering rules provide that distributions from a CFC are treated as coming first out of E&P of the CFC that were previously taxed under the CFC regime, then out of other E&P.[xv]

Foreign Tax Credit

Subject to certain limitations, U.S. persons are allowed to claim a credit for foreign income taxes they pay. A foreign tax credit (“FTC”) generally is available to offset, in whole or in part, the U.S. income tax owed on foreign-source income included in the U.S. person’s income; this includes foreign taxes paid by an S corporation on any of its foreign income that flows through to its shareholders.

A domestic corporation is allowed a “deemed-paid” credit for foreign income taxes paid by the CFC that the domestic corporation is deemed to have paid when the related income is included in the domestic corporation’s income under the anti-deferral rules.[xvi]

Unfortunately for S corporations, they are treated as partnerships – not corporations – for purposes of the FTC and the CFC rules; thus, they cannot pass-through any such deemed-paid credit to their shareholders.

However, any tax that is withheld by the CFC with respect to a dividend distributed to an S corporation will flow through to the S corporation’s individual shareholders.

TCJA Changes

The TCJA made some significant changes to the taxation of USS that own stock in CFCs.

Transition Rule: Mandatory Inclusion

In order to provide a clean slate for the application of these new rules, the TCJA provides a special transition rule that requires all USS of a “specified foreign corporation” (“SFC”) to include in income their pro rata shares of the SFC’s “accumulated post-1986 deferred foreign income” (“post-1986-DFI”) that was not previously taxed to them.[xvii] A SFC means (1) a CFC or (2) any FC in which a domestic corporation is a USS.[xviii]

The mechanism for the mandatory inclusion of these pre-effective-date foreign earnings is the CFC regime. The TCJA provides that the subpart F income of a SFC is increased for the last taxable year of the SFC that begins before January 1, 2018.

This transition rule applies to all USS of a SFC, including individuals.

Consistent with the general operation of the CFC regime, each USS of a SFC must include in income its pro rata share of the SFC’s subpart F income attributable to the corporation’s post-1986-DFI.

Reduced Tax Rate

Fortunately, the TCJA allows a portion of that pro rata share of deferred foreign income to be deducted. The amount deductible varies, depending upon whether the deferred foreign income is held by the SFC in the form of liquid or illiquid assets. To the extent the income is not so deductible – i.e., is included in the income of the USS – the USS may claim a portion of the foreign tax credit attributable thereto.

The total deduction from the amount included under the transition rule is the amount necessary to result in a 15.5-percent tax rate on post-1986-DFI held by the SFC in the form of cash or cash equivalents,[xix] and an 8-percent tax rate on all other earnings.

The calculation of the deduction is based on the highest rate of tax applicable to domestic corporations in the taxable year of inclusion, even if the USS is an individual.

However, an individual USS – including the shareholder of an S corporation – will be taxed on the amount included in their income at the higher federal tax rate applicable to individuals.[xx]

That being said, an individual USS, including one who is a shareholder of an S corporation, generally may elect application of the corporate tax rates for the year of inclusion.[xxi]

Deferred Payment of Tax

A USS may elect to pay the net tax liability resulting from the mandatory inclusion of post-1986-DFI in eight unequal installments.[xxii] The timely payment of an installment does not incur interest.[xxiii]

The provision also includes an acceleration rule. If (1) there is a failure to pay timely any required installment, (2) there is a liquidation or sale of substantially all of the USS’s assets, (3) the USS ceases business, or (4) another similar circumstance arises, the unpaid portion of all remaining installments will become due immediately.

Special Deferral for S corporation Shareholders

A special rule permits deferral of the above transitional tax liability for shareholders of a USS that is an S corporation.

The S corporation is required to report on its income tax return the amount includible in gross income by reason of this provision, as well as the amount of deduction that would be allowable, and to provide a copy of such information to its shareholders.

Any shareholder of the S corporation may elect to defer their portion of the tax liability until the shareholder’s taxable year in which a “triggering event” occurs.[xxiv]

Three types of events may trigger an end to deferral of this tax liability. The first is a change in the status of the corporation as an S corporation. The second category includes liquidation, sale of substantially all corporate assets, termination of the company or end of business, or similar event, including reorganization in bankruptcy. The third type of triggering event is a transfer of shares of stock in the S corporation by the electing taxpayer, whether by sale, death or otherwise, unless the transferee of the stock agrees to be liable for tax liability in the same manner as the transferor.[xxv]

If a shareholder of an S corporation has elected deferral under this special rule, and a triggering event occurs, then the S corporation and the electing shareholder will be jointly and severally liable for any tax liability (and related interest or penalties).[xxvi]

After a triggering event occurs, an electing shareholder may elect to pay the tax liability in eight installments, subject to rules similar to those generally applicable absent deferral. Whether a shareholder may elect to pay in installments depends upon the type of event that triggered the end of deferral. If the triggering event is a liquidation, sale of substantially all corporate assets, termination of the company or end of business, or similar event, the installment payment election is not available. Instead, the entire tax liability is due upon notice and demand.[xxvii]

The New CFC Regime

With the mandatory “repatriation” of the post-1986-DFI of SFC, the TCJA implemented a new “participation exemption” regime for the taxation of USS of “specified 10-percent-owned FCs,”[xxviii] effective for taxable years of FCs beginning after December 31, 2017.

Dividends Received Deduction

Specifically, it allows an exemption for certain foreign income by means of a 100-percent deduction for the foreign-source portion of dividends[xxix] received from a specified-10%-owned FC by a domestic corporation that is a USS of such FC.[xxx]

The term “dividends received” is intended to be interpreted broadly; for example, if a domestic corporation indirectly owns stock of a FC through a partnership, and the domestic corporation would qualify for the DRD with respect to dividends from the FC if the domestic corporation owned such stock directly, the domestic corporation would be allowed a DRD with respect to its distributive share of the partnership’s dividend from the FC.[xxxi]

This DRD is available only to regular domestic C corporations that are USS, including those that own stock of a FC through a partnership; it is not available to C corporations that own less than 10% of the FC. The DRD is available only for the foreign-source portion of dividends received by a qualifying domestic corporation from a speficied-10-percent-owned FC.

No foreign tax credit or deduction is allowed to a USS for any foreign taxes paid or accrued by the FC (including withholding taxes) with respect to any portion of a dividend distribution that qualifies for the DRD.[xxxii]

Significantly, the DRD is not available to individuals; nor is it available to S corporations or their shareholders. Considering that an S corporation is not entitled to the deemed-paid credit for foreign income taxes paid by its foreign subsidiary, the income of the foreign subsidiary may be taxed twice: once by the foreign country and, when distributed, by the U.S.[xxxiii]

Holding Period

A domestic corporation is not permitted a DRD in respect of any dividend on any share of stock of a specified-10-percent-owned FC unless it satisfies a minimum holding period.

Specifically, the FC’s stock must have been held by the domestic corporation for at least 365 days during the 731-day period beginning on the date that is 365 days before the date on which the share becomes ex-dividend with respect to the dividend. For this purpose, the holding period requirement is treated as met only if the specified-10-percent-owned FC qualifies as such at all times during the period, and the taxpayer is a USS with respect to such FC at all times during the period.

GILTI

Having captured and taxed the post-1986-DFI of SFC (through 2017), and having introduced the DRD, the TCJA also introduced a new class of income – “global intangible low-taxed income” (“GILTI”) – that must be included in income by a USS of a CFC, and which further erodes a taxpayer’s ability to defer the U.S. taxation of foreign income.

Amount Included

This provision requires the current inclusion[xxxiv] in income by a USS of (i) their share of all of a CFC’s non-subpart F income (other than income that is effectively connected with a U.S. trade or business and income that is excluded from foreign base company income by reason of the high-tax exception),[xxxv] (ii) less an amount equal to the USS’s share of 10-percent of the adjusted basis of the CFC’s tangible property used in its trade or business and of a type with respect to which a depreciation deduction is generally allowable (the difference being GILTI).[xxxvi]

In the case of a CFC engaged in a service business or other business with few fixed assets, the GILTI inclusion rule may result in the U.S taxation of the CFC’s non-subpart F business income without the benefit of any deferral.

This income inclusion rule applies to both individual and corporate USS.

In the case of an individual, the maximum federal tax rate on GILTI is 37-percent.[xxxvii] This is the rate that will apply, for example, to a U.S. citizen who directly owns at least 10-percent of the stock of a CFC, or to one who indirectly owns such CFC stock through an S corporation.

C Corporations

More forgiving rules apply in the case of a USS that is a C corporation. For taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, and before January 1, 2026, a regular domestic C corporation is generally allowed a deduction of an amount equal to 50-percent of its GILTI; thus, the federal corporate tax rate for GILTI is actually 10.5% (the 21% flat rate multiplied by 50%).[xxxviii]

In addition, for any amount of GILTI included in the gross income of a domestic C corporation, the corporation is allowed a deemed-paid credit equal to 80-percent of the foreign taxes paid or accrued by the CFC with respect to such GILTI.

Based on the interaction of the 50-percent deduction and the 80-percent foreign tax credit, the U.S. tax rate on GILTI that is included in the income of a regular C corporation will be zero where the foreign tax rate on such income is 13.125%.[xxxix]

S Corporations

Because an S corporation’s taxable income is computed in the same manner as an individual, and because an S corporation is treated as a partnership for purposes of the CFC rules, neither the 50-percent GILTI deduction nor the 80-percent deemed-paid credit apply to S corporations or their shareholders. Thus, individuals are treated more harshly by the GILTI inclusion rules than are C corporations.

What is an S Corp. to Do?

So what is an S corporation with a FC subsidiary to do when confronted with the foregoing challenges and the TCJA’s pro-C corporation bias?

C Corporation?

One option is for the S corporation to contribute its FC shares to a domestic C corporation, or the S corporation itself could convert into a C corporation (its shareholders may revoke its election, or the corporation may cease to qualify as a small business corporation by providing for a second class of stock or by admitting a non-qualifying shareholder).

However, C corporation status has its own significant issues (like double taxation), and should not be undertaken lightly, especially if the sale of the business is reasonably foreseeable.

Branch?

Another option is for the S corporation to effectively liquidate its foreign subsidiary and to operate in the foreign jurisdiction through a branch, or through an entity for which a “check-the-box election” may be made to disregard the entity for tax purposes.

This would avoid the CFC and GITLI rules entirely, and it would allow the shareholders of the S corporation to claim a credit for foreign taxes paid by the branch.

Of course, operating through a branch would also prevent any deferral of U.S. taxation of the foreign income, and may subject the U.S. person to a branch profits tax in the foreign jurisdiction.[xl]

It should be noted, however, that the liquidation or reorganization of a CFC into a branch will generally be a taxable event, with the result that the accumulated foreign earnings and profits of the CFC will be included in the income of the USS as a “deemed dividend.”

That being said, the rules for determining such accumulated earnings and profits generally exclude amounts previously included in the gross income of the USS under the CFC rules. To the extent any amount is not so excluded, the S corporation shareholder of the CFC will not be able to utilize the DRD to reduce its tax liability.[xli]

Section 962 Election?

Yet another option to consider – which pre-dates the TCJA, but which seems to have been under-utilized – is a special election that is available to an individual who is a USS, either directly or through an S corporation.

This election, which is made on annual basis, results in the individual being treated as a C corporation for purposes of determining the income tax on their share of GILTI and subpart F income; thus, the electing individual shareholder would be taxed at the corporate tax rate.[xlii]

The election also causes the individual to be treated as a C corporation for purposes of claiming the FTC attributable to this income; thus, they would be allowed the 80-percent deemed-paid credit.

Of course, like most elections, this one comes at a price. The E&P of a FC that are attributable to amounts which were included in the income of a USS under the GILTI or CFC rules, and with respect to which an election was made, shall be included in gross income, when such E&P are actually distributed to the USS, to the extent that the E&P so distributed exceed the amount of tax paid on the amounts to which such election applied.[xliii]

No Easy Way Out[xliv]

We find ourselves in a new regime for the U.S. taxation of foreign income, and there is still a lot of guidance to be issued.

In the meantime, an S corporation with a foreign subsidiary would be well-served to model out the consequences of the various options described above, taking into account its unique circumstances – including the possibility of a sale – before making any changes to the structure of its foreign operations.


[i] “TCJA”. Public Law No. 115-97.

[ii] These may be wholly-owned, or they may be partially-owned; the latter often represent a joint venture with a foreign business.

[iii] The “20% of qualified business income deduction” for pass-through entities does not apply to foreign-source income.

[iv] The Code provides sourcing rules for most categories of business income. It should be noted that, in certain cases, a foreign person that is engaged in a U.S. trade or business may have limited categories of foreign-source income that are considered to be effectively connected such U.S. trade or business.

[v] Special rules apply where the foreign subsidiary engages in business transactions with its U.S. parent or with another affiliated company. A basic U.S. tax principle applicable in dividing profits from transactions between related taxpayers is that the amount of profit allocated to each related taxpayer must be measured by reference to the amount of profit that a similarly situated taxpayer would realize in similar transactions with unrelated parties. The “transfer pricing rules” of section 482 seek to ensure that taxpayers do not shift income properly attributable to the U.S. to a related foreign company through pricing that does not reflect an arm’s-length result.

[vi] Noncitizens who are lawfully admitted as permanent residents of the U.S. (“green card holders”) are treated as residents for tax purposes. In addition, noncitizens who meet a “substantial presence test” (based upon the number of days spent in the U.S.) are also, generally speaking, taxable as U.S. residents.

[vii] It should be noted that an unincorporated entity, such as a partnership or limited liability company, may elect its classification for Federal tax purposes – as a disregarded entity, a partnership or an association – under the “check-the-box” regulations. See Treas. Reg. 301.7701-3.

[viii] The same goes for income that is treated as having been earned directly, as through a partnership. IRC Sec. 702(b).

[ix] The other main anti-deferral regime covers Passive Foreign Investment Companies (“PFIC”). There is some overlap between the CFC and PFIC regimes; the former trumps the latter.

[x] The TCJA amended the applicable ownership attribution rules so that certain stock of a FC owned by a foreign person is attributed to a related U.S. person for purposes of determining whether the related U.S. person is a USS of the FC and, therefore, whether the FC is a CFC. The pro rata share of a CFC’s subpart F income that a USS is required to include in gross income, however, continues to be determined based on direct or indirect ownership of the CFC, without application of the new downward attribution rule. In making this amendment, the TCJA intended to render ineffective certain transactions that were used to as a means of avoiding the CFC regime. One such transaction involved effectuating “de-control” of a foreign subsidiary, by taking advantage of the prior attribution rule that effectively turned off the constructive stock ownership rules when to do otherwise would result in a U.S. person being treated as owning stock owned by a foreign person.

[xi] The TCJA expanded the definition of USS under subpart F to include any U.S. person who owns 10 percent or more of the total value of shares of all classes of stock of a FC. Prior law looked only to voting power. The TCJA also eliminated the requirement that a FC must be controlled for an uninterrupted period of 30 days before subpart F inclusions apply.

[xii] The 10-percent U.S. shareholders of a CFC also are required to include currently in income for U.S. tax purposes their pro rata shares of the CFC’s untaxed earnings invested in certain items of U.S. property. This U.S. property generally includes tangible property located in the U.S. stock of a U.S. corporation, an obligation of a U.S. person, and certain intangible assets, such as patents and copyrights, acquired or developed by the CFC for use in the U.S. The inclusion rule for investment of earnings in U.S. property is intended to prevent taxpayers from avoiding U.S. tax on dividend repatriations by repatriating CFC earnings through non-dividend payments, such as loans to U.S. persons.

[xiii] Before the TCJA reduced the tax rate on C corporations to a flat 21 percent, that meant more than 90 percent of 35 percent, or 31.5 percent. The reduced corporate tax rate should make it easier for a CFC to satisfy this exception; 90% of 21% is 18.9%.

[xiv] This concept, as well as the basis-adjustment concept immediately below, should be familiar to anyone dealing with partnerships and S corporations.

[xv] In order to ensure that this previously-taxed foreign income is not taxed a second time upon distribution, a USS of a CFC generally receives a basis increase with respect to its stock in the CFC equal to the amount of the CFC’s earnings that are included in the USS’s income under the CFC regime. Conversely, a 10-percent U.S. shareholder of a CFC generally reduces its basis in the CFC’s stock in an amount equal to any distributions that the 10-percent U.S. shareholder receives from the CFC that are excluded from its income as previously taxed under subpart F.

[xvi] The deemed-paid credit is limited to the amount of foreign income taxes properly attributable to the subpart F inclusion. The foreign tax credit generally is limited to a taxpayer’s U.S. tax liability on its foreign-source taxable income. This limit is intended to ensure that the credit serves its purpose of mitigating double taxation of foreign-source income without offsetting U.S. tax on U.S.-source income.

[xvii] Basically, foreign earnings that were not previously taxed, that are not effectively connected to the conduct of a U.S. trade or business, and that are not subpart F income.

[xviii] Such entities must determine their post-1986 deferred foreign income based on the greater of the aggregate

post-1986 accumulated foreign earnings and profits as of November 2, 2017 or December 31,

[xix] The cash position of an entity consists of all cash, net accounts receivables, and the fair market value of similarly liquid assets, specifically including personal property that is actively traded on an established financial market, government securities, certificates of deposit, commercial paper, and short-term obligations.

[xx] It should be noted that the increase in income that is not taxed by reason of the deduction is treated as income that is exempt from tax for purposes of determining (i.e., increasing) a shareholder’s stock basis in an S corporation, but not as income exempt from tax for purposes of determining the accumulated adjustments account (“AAA”) of an S corporation (thus increasing the risk of a dividend from an S corporation with E&P from a C corporation).

[xxi] IRC Sec. 962. However, there are other consequences that stem from such an election that must be considered,

[xxii] The net tax liability that may be paid in installments is the excess of the USS’s net income tax for the taxable year in which the pre-effective-date undistributed CFC earnings are included in income over the taxpayer’s net income tax for that year determined without regard to the inclusion. https://www.taxlawforchb.com/?s=foreign

[xxiii] If a deficiency is determined that is attributable to an understatement of the net tax liability due under this provision, the deficiency is payable with underpayment interest for the period beginning on the date on which the net tax liability would have been due, without regard to an election to pay in installments, and ending with the payment of the deficiency.

[xxiv] The election to defer the tax is due not later than the due date for the return of the S corporation for its last taxable year that begins before January 1, 2018.

[xxv] Partial transfers trigger the end of deferral only with respect to the portion of tax properly allocable to the portion of stock sold.

[xxvi] Query how the shareholders’ agreement for an S corporation should be amended to address this possibility.

[xxvii] If an election to defer payment of the tax liability is in effect for a shareholder, that shareholder must report the amount of the deferred tax liability on each income tax return due during the period that the election is in effect. Failure to include that information with each income tax return will result in a penalty equal to five-percent of the amount that should have been reported.

[xxviii] In general, a “specified 10-percent owned foreign corporation” is any FC (other than a PFIC) with respect to which any domestic corporation is a USS.

[xxix] A distribution of previously-taxed income does not constitute a dividend, even if it reduced earnings and profits.

[xxx] The “dividends received deduction” (“DRD”).

[xxxi] In the case of the sale or exchange by a domestic corporation of stock in a FC held for one year or more, any amount received by the domestic corporation which is treated as a dividend for purposes of Code section 1248, is treated as a dividend for purposes of applying the provision. Thus, the DRD will be available to such a deemed dividend. Sec. 1248 is intended to prevent the conversion of subpart F income into capital gain.

[xxxii] In addition, the DRD is not available for any dividend received from a FC if the dividend is a “hybrid dividend.” A hybrid dividend is an amount received from a FC for which a DRD would otherwise be allowed and for which the specified-10-percent-owned FC received a deduction (or other tax benefit) with respect to any income taxes imposed by any foreign country.

[xxxiii] Of course, we also have to consider any withholding tax that the foreign country may impose of the foreign corporation’s dividend distribution to its S corporation shareholder. This tax will be creditable by the shareholders of the S corporation.

[xxxiv] For purposes of the GILTI inclusion, a person is treated as a U.S. shareholder of a CFC for any taxable year only if such person “owns” stock in the corporation on the last day, in such year, on which the corporation is a CFC. A corporation is generally treated as a CFC for any taxable year if the corporation is a CFC at any time during the taxable year.

[xxxv] Thus, subpart F income, effectively connected income, and income that is subject to foreign tax at a rate greater than 18.9% is not GILTI. For example, the corporate tax rate is 19% in the U.K., 24% in Italy, 25% in Spain 25%, 18% in Luxembourg, and 25% in the Netherlands.

[xxxvi] “Qualified business asset investment (“QBAI”). The CFC’s intangible property is not included in QBAI.

The 10% represents an arbitrary rate of return on the “unreturned capital” (i.e., tangible property) of the CFC, represented by its adjusted basis, for which continued deferral is permitted. Anything in excess thereof must be included in the gross income of the USS on a current basis.

[xxxvii] The maximum individual tax rate applicable to ordinary income.

[xxxviii] For taxable years beginning after December 31, 2025, the deduction is lowered to 37.5-percent.

It should be noted that it is intended that the “50-percent of GILTI deduction” be treated as exempting the deducted income from tax. Thus, for example, the deduction for GILTI could give rise to an increase in a domestic corporate partner’s basis in a domestic partnership that holds stock in a CFC.

[xxxix] 13.125% multiplied by 80% equals 10.5 percent.

[xl] Of course, an income tax treaty between the U.S. and the foreign jurisdiction may affect this result.

[xli] The applicable regulations have yet to be amended to reflect the changes made by the TCJA.

[xlii] However, the shareholder will not be allowed the 50-percent GILTI deduction. This deduction is not part of the CFC or FTC rules.

[xliii] In other words, the regular double taxation rules for C corporations will apply; the corporation is treated as having distributed its after-tax E&P.

[xliv] Remember “Rocky IV”?

We’ve all heard about the profits that publicly-held U.S. corporations have generated overseas, and how those profits have, until now, escaped U.S. income taxation by virtue of not having been repatriated to the U.S.

It should be noted, however, that many closely-held U.S. corporations are also actively engaged in business overseas, and they, too, have often benefited from such tax deferral.

What follows is a brief description of some of the rules governing the U.S. income taxation of the foreign business (“outbound”) activities of closely-held U.S. businesses, and the some of the important changes thereto under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.[1]

Taxation of Foreign Income

U.S. persons[2] are subject to tax on their worldwide income, whether derived in the U.S. or abroad.

In general, income earned directly (or that is treated as earned directly[3]) by a U.S. person from its conduct of a foreign business is subject to U.S. tax on a current basis; for example, the income generated by the U.S. person’s branch in a foreign jurisdiction.

However, income that is earned indirectly, through the operation of a foreign business by a foreign corporation (“FC”), is generally not subject to U.S. tax on a current basis; instead, the foreign business income earned by the FC generally is not subject to U.S. tax until the income is distributed as a dividend to a U.S. owner.[4]

CFC Anti-Deferral Regime

That being said, the controlled foreign corporation (“CFC”) anti-deferral regime may cause a U.S. owner of a CFC to be taxed currently in the U.S. on its pro rata shares of certain categories of income earned by the CFC (“Subpart F income”) regardless of whether the income has been distributed as a dividend to the U.S. owner.

A CFC generally is defined as any FC if U.S. persons own (directly, indirectly, or constructively) more than 50% of the corporation’s stock (measured by vote or value), taking into account only those U.S. persons that are “U.S. Shareholders” – i.e., U.S. persons who own at least 10% of the CFC’s stock (which, prior to the Act, was measured by vote only).

In effect, the U.S. Shareholders of a CFC are treated as having received a current distribution of the CFC’s Subpart F income[5], which includes foreign base company income, among other items of income.

“Foreign base company income” includes certain categories of income from business operations, including “foreign base company sales income,” and “foreign base company services income,” as well as certain passive income.

The U.S. Shareholders of a CFC also are required to include currently in income, their pro rata shares of the CFC’s untaxed earnings that are invested in certain items of U.S. property, including, for example, tangible property located in the U.S., stock of a U.S. corporation, and an obligation of a U.S. person.[6]

Several exceptions to the definition of Subpart F income, including the “same country” exception, may permit continued deferral for income from certain business transactions.[7] Another exception is available for any item of business income received by a CFC if it can be established that the income was subject to an effective foreign income tax rate greater than 90% of the maximum U.S. corporate income tax rate.[8]

A U.S. Shareholder of a CFC may also exclude from its income any actual distributions of earnings from the CFC that were previously included in the shareholder’s income.

The Act

For the most part, the Act did not change the basic principles of the CFC regime; these anti-deferral rules will continue to apply[9], subject to certain amendments.

However, the Act also introduced some significant changes to the taxation of certain U.S. persons who own shares of stock in FCs.

CFCs

The Act amended the ownership attribution rules so that certain stock of a FC owned by a foreign person may be attributed to a related U.S. person for purposes of determining whether the U.S. person is a U.S. Shareholder of the FC and, therefore, whether the FC is a CFC.[10] For example, a U.S. corporation may be attributed shares of stock owned by its foreign shareholder.

The Act also expanded the definition of U.S. Shareholder to include any U.S. person who owns 10% or more of the total value – as opposed to 10% of the vote – of all classes of stock of a FC. It also eliminated the requirement that a FC must be controlled for an uninterrupted period of 30 days before the inclusion rules apply.

Dividends Received Deduction (“DRD”)

The Act introduced some new concepts that are aimed at encouraging the repatriation of foreign earnings by U.S. taxpayers; stated differently, it removes an incentive for the overseas accumulation of such earnings.[11]

The keystone provision is the DRD, which allows an exemption from U.S. taxation for certain foreign income by means of a 100% deduction for the foreign-source portion of dividends received from specified 10%-owned FCs by regular domestic C corporations[12] that are U.S. Shareholders of those FCs.

In general, a “specified 10%-owned FC” is any FC with respect to which any domestic corporation is a U.S. Shareholder.[13]

The term “dividend received” is intended to be interpreted broadly. For example, if a domestic corporation indirectly owns stock of a FC through a partnership, and the domestic corporation would qualify for the participation DRD with respect to dividends from the FC if the domestic corporation owned such stock directly, the domestic corporation would be allowed a participation DRD with respect to its distributive share of the partnership’s dividend from the FC. In addition, any gain from the sale of CFC stock that would be treated as a dividend would also constitute a dividend received for which the DRD may be available. That being said, it appears that a deemed dividend of subpart F income from a CFC will not qualify for the DRD.

In general, the DRD is available only for the foreign-source portion of dividends received by a domestic corporation from a specified 10%-owned FC; i.e., the amount that bears the same ratio to the dividend as the undistributed foreign earnings bear to the total undistributed earnings of the FC.[14]

The DRD is not available for any dividend received by a U.S. Shareholder from a FC if the FC received a deduction or other tax benefit from taxes imposed by a foreign country. Conversely, no foreign tax credit or deduction is allowed for any taxes paid or accrued with respect to any portion of a distribution treated as a dividend that qualifies for the DRD, including any foreign taxes withheld at the source.[15]

It should be noted that a domestic C corporation is not permitted a DRD in respect of any dividend on any share of FC stock unless it satisfies a holding period requirement. Specifically, the share must have been held by the U.S. corporation for at least 366 days during the 731-day period beginning on the date that is 365 days before the date on which the share becomes ex-dividend with respect to the dividend. The holding period requirement is treated as met only if the specified 10%-owned FC is a specified 10%-owned FC at all times during the period and the taxpayer is a U.S. Shareholder with respect to such specified 10%-owned foreign corporation at all times during the period.

Transitional Inclusion Rule[16]

In order to prevent the DRD from turning into a “permanent exclusion rule” for certain U.S. corporations with FC subsidiaries, the accumulated earnings of which have not yet been subject to U.S. income tax – and probably also to generate revenue – the Act requires that any U.S. Shareholder (including, for example, a C corporation, as well as an S corporation, a partnership, and a U.S. individual) of a “specified FC” include in income its pro rata share of the post-1986 deferred foreign earnings of the FC.[17] The inclusion occurs in the last taxable year beginning before January 1, 2018.[18]

This one-time mandatory inclusion applies to all CFCs, and to almost all other FCs in which a U.S. person owns at least a 10% voting interest. However, in the case of a FC that is not a CFC, there must be at least one U.S. Shareholder that is a U.S. corporation in order for the FC to be a specified FC.

The deferred foreign earnings of such a FC are based on the greater of its aggregate post-1986 accumulated foreign earnings as of November 2, 2017[19] or December 31, 2017, not reduced by distributions during the taxable year ending with or including the measurement date.[20]

A portion of a U.S. taxpayer’s includible pro rata share of the FC’s foreign earnings is deductible by the U.S. taxpayer, thereby resulting in a reduced rate of tax with respect to the income from the required inclusion of accumulated foreign earnings. Specifically, the amount of the deduction is such as will result in a 15.5% rate of tax on the post-1986 accumulated foreign earnings that are held in the form of cash or cash equivalents, and an 8% rate of tax on those earnings held in illiquid assets. The calculation is based on the highest rate of tax applicable to U.S. corporations in the taxable year of inclusion, even if the U.S. Shareholder is an individual.[21]

Installment Payments

A U.S. Shareholder may elect to pay the net tax liability resulting from the mandatory inclusion of a FC’s post-1986 accumulated foreign earnings in eight equal installments. The net tax liability that may be paid in installments is the excess of the U.S. Shareholder’s net income tax for the taxable year in which the foreign earnings are included in income over the taxpayer’s net income tax for that year determined without regard to the inclusion.

An election to pay the tax in installments must be made by the due date for the tax return for the taxable year in which the undistributed foreign earnings are included in income. The first installment must be paid on the due date (determined without regard to extensions) for the tax return for the taxable year of the income inclusion. Succeeding installments must be paid annually no later than the due dates (without extensions) for the income tax return of each succeeding year.[22]

The Act also provides that if (1) there is a failure to pay timely any required installment, (2) there is a liquidation or sale of substantially all of the U.S. Shareholder’s assets, (3) the U.S. Shareholder ceases business, or (4) another similar circumstance arises, then the unpaid portion of all remaining installments is due on the date of such event.

S corporations

A special rule permits continued deferral of the transitional tax liability for shareholders of a U.S. Shareholder that is an S corporation. The S corporation is required to report on its income tax return the amount of accumulated foreign earnings includible in gross income by reason of the Act, as well as the amount of the allowable deduction, and it must provide a copy of such information to its shareholders. Any shareholder of the S corporation may elect to defer his portion of this tax liability until the shareholder’s taxable year in which a prescribed triggering event occurs.

This shareholder election to defer the tax is due not later than the due date for the return of the S corporation for its last taxable year that begins before January 1, 2018 (i.e., by March 15, 2018 for an S corporation with a taxable year ending December 31, 2017).

Three types of events may trigger an end to deferral of the tax liability: (i) a change in the status of the corporation as an S corporation; (ii) the liquidation, sale of substantially all corporate assets, termination of the of business, or similar event; and (iii) a transfer of shares of stock in the S corporation by the electing taxpayer, whether by sale, death or otherwise, unless the transferee of the stock agrees with the IRS to be liable for tax liability in the same manner as the transferor.[23]

If a shareholder of an S corporation has elected deferral, and a triggering event occurs, the S corporation and the electing shareholder are jointly and severally liable for any tax liability and related interest or penalties.[24]

In addition, the electing shareholder must report the amount of the deferred tax liability on each income tax return due during the period that the election is in effect.[25]

After a triggering event occurs, a shareholder may be able elect to pay the net tax liability in eight equal installments, unless the deferral-ending triggering event is a liquidation, sale of substantially all corporate assets, termination of the company or end of business, or similar event, in which case the installment payment election is not available, and the entire tax liability is due upon notice and demand.[26]

Observations

As stated earlier, many closely-held U.S. companies (“CH”) are engaged in business overseas, and many more will surely join them.

Although the Act ostensibly focused on the tax deferral enjoyed by large, publicly-traded multinationals, its provisions will also have a significant impact on CH that do business overseas.

Regardless of its form of organization, a CH has to determine fairly soon the amount of its 2017 U.S. income tax liability resulting from the inclusion in income of any post-1986 accumulated foreign earnings of any CFC of which it is a U.S. Shareholder.

Similarly, in the case of any FC of which the CH is a U.S. Shareholder, but which is not a CFC, the CH must determine whether there is a U.S. corporation (including itself) that is a U.S. Shareholder of the FC. If there is, then the CH will be subject to the mandatory inclusion rule for its share of the FC’s post-1986 accumulated foreign earnings.

The CH and its owners will then have to determine whether to pay the resulting income tax liability at once, in 2018, or in installments.

Of course, if the CH is an S corporation, each of its shareholders will have to decide whether to defer the tax liability until one of the “triggering event” described above occurs.

After the mandatory inclusion rule has been addressed, the CH may decide whether to repatriate some of the already-taxed foreign earnings.

Looking forward, if the CH is a regular C corporation, any dividends it receives from a FC of which it is a U.S. Shareholder may qualify for the DRD.

C corporation CHs that may be operating overseas through a branch or a partnership may want to consider whether incorporating the branch or partnership as a FC, and paying any resulting tax liability, may be warranted in order to take advantage of the DRD – they should at least determine the tax exposure.

Still other CHs, that may be formed as S corporations or partnerships, must continue to be mindful of the CFC anti-deferral regime.

It’s a new tax regime, and it’s time for old dogs to learn new “tricks.” Woof.


[1] Pub. L. 115-97 (the “Act”). We will not cover the “minimum tax” provided under the new “base erosion” rules applicable to certain U.S. corporations – those with more than $500 million of average annual gross receipts – that make certain payments to related parties.

[2] Including all U.S. citizens and residents, as well as U.S. partnerships, corporations, estates and certain trusts. For legal entities, the Code determines whether an entity is subject to U.S. taxation on its worldwide income on the basis of its place of organization. For purposes of the Code, a corporation or partnership is treated as domestic if it is organized under U.S. law.

[3] As in the case of a U.S. partner in a partnership that is engaged in business overseas.

[4] It should be noted that certain foreign entities are eligible to elect their classification for U.S. tax purposes under the IRS’s “check-the-box” regulations. As a result, it is possible for such a foreign entity to be treated as a corporation for foreign tax purposes, but to be treated as a flow-through, or disregarded, entity for U.S. tax purposes; the income of such a hybrid would be taxed to the U.S. owner.

[5] Prior to the Act, and subject to certain limitations, a domestic corporation that owned at least 10% of the voting stock of a FC was allowed a “deemed-paid” credit for foreign income taxes paid by the FC that the domestic corporation was deemed to have paid when the related income was distributed as a dividend, or was included in the domestic corporation’s income under the anti-deferral rules.

[6] This inclusion rule is intended to prevent taxpayers from avoiding U.S. tax on “dividends” by repatriating CFC earnings through non-dividend payments, such as loans to U.S. persons.

[7] For example, the CFC’s purchase of personal property from a related person and its sale to another person where the purchased property was produced in the same foreign country under the laws of which the CFC is organized.

[8] This rate was 35% prior to the Act; the Act reduced the rate to 21%, which should make it easier for some CFCs to satisfy this exception. In that case, the U.S. Shareholder of a CFC will not be subject to the CFC inclusion rules – in other words, it can continue to enjoy tax deferral for the foreign earnings – if the foreign corporate tax rate is at least 19%; i.e., 90% of 21%. This will benefit U.S. persons who otherwise do not qualify for the DRD, discussed below.

[9] For example, CFCs should continue to refrain from guaranteeing their U.S. parent’s indebtedness.

[10] The pro rata share of a CFC’s subpart F income that a U.S. Shareholder is required to include in gross income, however, will continue to be determined based on direct or indirect ownership of the CFC, without application of the new attribution rule.

[11] This moves the U.S. toward a “territorial” system under which the income of foreign subsidiaries is not subject to U.S. tax.

[12] The DRD is available only to regular C corporations. As in the case of dividends paid by U.S. corporations to individuals or to an S corporation, no DRD is available to such shareholders.

[13] Query whether the DRD, combined with the new 21% tax rate for C corporations will encourage U.S. corporations that have substantial foreign operations to remain or become C corporations and to operate overseas only through foreign subsidiary corporations. Unfortunately, the Act also denies non-recognition treatment for the transfer by a U.S. person of property used in the active conduct of a trade or business to a FC.

[14] “Undistributed earnings” are the amount of the earnings and profits of a specified 10%-owned FC as of the close of the taxable year of the specified 10%-owned FC in which the dividend is distributed. A distribution of previously taxed income does not constitute a dividend.

[15] In this way, the Act seeks to avoid bestowing a double benefit upon the U.S. taxpayer; however, foreign withholding tax may prove to be a costly item.

[16] See IRS Notice 2018-13 for additional guidance.

[17] Any amount included in income by a U.S. Shareholder under this rule is not included a second time when it is distributed as a dividend.

[18] Beware, calendar year taxpayers.

[19] The date the Act was introduced.

[20] The portion of post-1986 earnings and profits subject to the transition tax does not include earnings and profits that were accumulated by a FC prior to attaining its status as a specified FC.

[21] A reduced foreign tax credit is also allowed.

[22] If installment payment is elected, the net tax liability is not paid in eight equal installments; rather, the Act requires lower payments for the first five years, followed by larger payments for the next three years. The timely payment of an installment does not incur interest.

[23] Partial transfers trigger the end of deferral only with respect to the portion of tax properly allocable to the portion of stock sold.

[24] The period within which the IRS may collect such tax liability does not begin before the date of an event that triggers the end of the deferral.

[25] Failure to include that information with each income tax return will result in a penalty equal to five-percent of the amount that should have been reported.

[26] The installment election is due with the timely return for the year in which the triggering event occurs.

Perhaps the single most important day in the life of any closely held business is the day on which it is sold. The occasion will often mark the culmination of years of effort on the part of its owners.

The business may have succeeded to the point that its competitors seek to acquire it in furtherance of their own expansion plans; alternatively, private equity investors may view it as a positive addition to their portfolio of growth companies.

On the flip side, the owners of the business may not have adequately planned for their own succession; consequently, they may view the business as a “wasting asset” that has to be monetized sooner rather than later.

Worse still, the business may be failing and the owners want to recover as much of their investment as possible.

In any of the foregoing scenarios, the tax consequences arising from the disposition of the business will greatly affect the net economic result for its owners.

The following outlines a number of provisions included in the recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act[1] that should be of interest to owners of a closely held business that are considering the sale of the business, as well as to the potential buyers of the business.

Corporate Tax Rate

In general, the individual owner of a C corporation, or of an S corporation that is subject to the built-in gains tax, would prefer to sell his stock to a buyer – and thereby incur only a single level of federal income tax, at the favorable 20% capital gain rate[2] – rather than cause the corporation to sell its assets.

An asset sale generally results in two levels of tax: (a) to the corporation based upon the gain recognized by the corporation on the disposition of its assets; and (b)(i) to the shareholder of a C corporation upon his receipt of the after-tax proceeds in liquidation of the corporation, or (ii) to the shareholder of an S corporation under the applicable flow-through rules.

Prior to the Act, the maximum federal corporate tax rate was set at 35%; thus, the combined effective maximum rate for the corporation and shareholder was just over 50% (assuming the sale generated only capital gain).

The Act reduced the federal corporate tax rate to a flat 21%; consequently, the combined maximum federal rate has been reduced to 39.8%.

From the tax perspective of a seller, the reduced corporate rate will make asset deals[3] less expensive. For the buyer that agrees to gross-up the seller for the additional tax arising out of an asset deal (as opposed to a stock deal), the immediate out-of-pocket cost of doing so is also reduced.

Individual Ordinary Income Rate

The Act reduced the rate at which the ordinary income recognized by an individual is taxed, from 39.6% to 37%.[4]

In the case of an S corporation shareholder, or of an individual member of an LLC taxable as a pass-through entity[5], any ordinary income generated on the sale of the corporate assets – for example, depreciation recapture[6] – will be taxed at the reduced rate.

Any interest that is paid by a buyer to a seller in respect of a deferred payment of purchase price – i.e., an installment sale – or that is imputed to the seller[7], as in the case of an earn-out, will be taxable at the reduced rate for ordinary income.

Similarly, if the seller or its owners continue to hold the real estate on which the business operates, the rental income paid by the buyer will be subject to tax at this reduced rate.

Finally, any compensation paid to the owners, either as consultants or employees, or in respect of a non-compete, will be taxable at the reduced rate.

Self-Created Intangibles

The Act amended the Code to exclude a patent, invention, model or design (whether or not patented), and a secret formula or process which is held either by the taxpayer who created the property, or a taxpayer with a substituted or transferred basis from the taxpayer who created the property (or for whom the property was created), from the definition of a “capital asset.”

Thus, gains or losses from the sale or exchange of any of the above intangibles will no longer receive capital gain treatment.

NOLs

Prior to the Act, the net operating losses (“NOLs”) for a taxable year could be carried back two years and forward 20 years. The Act eliminates the carryback and allows the NOLs to be carried forward indefinitely, though it also limits the carryover deduction for a taxable year to 80% of the taxpayer’s taxable income for such year.

The Act did not change the rule that limits a target corporation’s ability to utilize its NOLs after a significant change in the ownership of its stock.[8] However, the Act’s elimination of the “NOL-20-year-carryover-limit” reduces the impact of the “change-in-ownership-loss-limitation” rule on a buyer of the target’s stock; even though the annual limitation imposed by the rule will continue to apply, the NOL will not expire unused after twenty years – rather, it will continue to be carried over until it is exhausted.

At the same time, however, the Act’s limitation of the carryover deduction for a taxable year, to 80% of the corporation’s taxable income, may impair a target’s ability to offset some of the gain recognized on the sale of its assets.

Interest Deduction Limit

The Act generally limits the deduction for business interest incurred or paid by a business for any taxable year to 30% of the business’s adjusted taxable income for such year.[9] Any interest deduction disallowed under this rule is carried forward indefinitely.

In the case of a buyer that will incur indebtedness to purchase a target company – for example, by borrowing the funds, or by issuing a promissory note as part of the consideration for the acquisition – this limitation on its ability to deduct the interest charged or imputed in respect of such indebtedness could make the acquisition more expensive from an economic perspective.[10]

Immediate Expensing

Prior to the Act, an additional first-year depreciation deduction was allowed in an amount equal to 50% of the adjusted basis of qualified property acquired and placed in service before January 1, 2020. Property qualifying for the additional first-year depreciation deduction had to meet requirements; for example, it had to be tangible personal property, certain computer software, or qualified improvement property. Moreover, the “original use” of the property had to commence with the taxpayer.

The Act, extended and modified the additional first-year depreciation deduction for qualifying property through 2026. It also increased the 50% allowance to 100% for property placed in service after September 27, 2017, and before January 1, 2023.[11]

It also removed the requirement that the original use of the qualifying property had to commence with the taxpayer. Thus, the provision applies to purchases of used as well as new items; in other words, the additional first-year depreciation deduction is now allowed for newly acquired used property.

The additional first-year depreciation deduction applies only to property that was not used by the taxpayer prior to the acquisition, and that was purchased in an arm’s-length transaction. It does not apply to property acquired in a nontaxable exchange such as a reorganization, or to property acquired from certain related persons, including a related entity (for example, from a person who controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with, the taxpayer).

Thus, a buyer will be permitted to immediately deduct the cost of acquiring “used” qualifying property[12] from a target business, thereby recovering what may be a not insignificant portion of its purchase price, and reducing the overall cost of the acquisition.

Pass-Throughs?

Query whether the owners of an S corporation (or of another target that is treated as a pass-through entity for tax purposes) will be allowed to claim the 20% deduction based on qualified business income in determining their tax liability from the sale of the assets of the business. Stated differently, and assuming that the owner’s income for the taxable year is derived entirely from the operation and sale of a single business, will the gain from the sale be included in determining the amount of the deduction?

It appears not. The definition of “qualified business income” excludes items of gain even where they are effectively connected with the conduct of a qualified trade or business; this would cover any capital gain arising from the sale of assets used in the trade or business. Moreover, it appears that the presence of such gain in an amount in excess of the taxable income of the business for the year of the sale (exclusive of the gain) would disallow any such deduction to the taxpayer.[13]

What Does It All Mean?

It remains to be seen whether these changes will influence the structure of M&A transactions. After all, most buyers would prefer to cherry-pick the target assets to be acquired and to assume only certain liabilities; they will consider a stock deal only if necessary. The reduction in the corporate tax rate will likely reinforce that fundamental principle, and may cause certain corporate sellers and their shareholders to be more amenable to an asset deal.

However, the pricing of an M&A transaction will likely be affected by the reduced corporate tax rate, by the limitation on a buyer’s deduction of acquisition interest, and by a buyer’s ability to immediately expense a portion of the purchase price. Each of these factors should be considered by a buyer in evaluating its acquisition of a target, the amount the buyer can offer in consideration, and its ability to finance the acquisition.

Only time and experience will tell.

As was mentioned in an earlier post, the Act was introduced on November 2, 2017, was enacted on December 22, 2017 – without the benefit of meaningful hearings and of input from tax professionals – and became effective on January 1, 2018 (just three weeks ago). The Congress is already discussing technical corrections, and the tax bar is asking for guidance from the IRS. Much remains to be discovered.

Stay tuned.


[1] Pub. L. 115-97 (the “Act”).

[2] The shareholder of a C corp, or of an S corp in which he does not materially participate, will also incur the additional 3.8% surtax on net investment income.

[3] Including sales of stock that are treated as asset sales for tax purposes under Sec. 338(h)(10) or Sec. 336(e) of the Code.

[4] The rate may be greater if the 3.8% surtax also applies to the item of income in question; for example, interest income.

[5] For example, a partnership.

[6] Sec. 1245 of the Code.

[7] Sec. 1274 of the Code.

[8] Code Sec. 382.

[9] In general, before 2022, the limitation is tied to EBITDA; thereafter, it is tied to EBIT.

[10] In general, the limitation does not apply to a corporation if its average annual gross receipts for the three-taxable-year period ending with the prior taxable year does not exceed $25 million.

[11] The allowance is thereafter reduced, and phased out, through 2026.

[12] This should cover both actual and deemed acquisitions of assets (as under a Sec. 338(h)(10) election).

[13] Although the underlying basis for the result is not discussed in the Congressional committee reports, it is likely attributable to favorable capital gain rate that applies to the individual owners of a pass-through entity.

Introduction

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017[1] went into effect only two weeks ago. Many of its provisions represent significant changes to the Code, and it will take most of us several months to fully digest them,[2] to appreciate their practical consequences, and to understand how they may best be utilized for the benefit of our clients.

Among the businesses on which the Act will have a significant and immediate effect is real estate. What follows is a summary of the principal effects of the Act on a closely held real estate business and its owners.[3]

There are many facets to a closely held real estate business, including the choice of entity in which to operate the business, the acquisition and disposition of real property, the construction or other improvement of the property, the financing of the foregoing activities, the rental of the property, the management of the business, and the transfer of its ownership.

The Act touches upon each of these activities. It is the responsibility of the business’s tax advisers to analyze how the changes enacted may affect the business, and to prepare a coherent plan that addresses these changes.

Individual Income Tax Rates

The Act reduced the maximum individual income tax rate from 39.6% (applicable, in the case of married joint filers, to taxable income in excess of $470,700) to 37% (applicable, in the case of married joint filers, to taxable income in excess of $600,000).

This reduced rate will apply to an individual owner’s net rental income. It will also apply to any depreciation recapture recognized on the sale of a real property.[4]

Income Tax

The Act did not change the 20% maximum rate applicable to individuals on their net capital gains and qualified dividends, nor did it change the 25% rate applicable to unrecaptured depreciation.

The Act also left in place the 3.8% surtax on net investment income that is generally applicable to an individual’s rental income, unless the individual can establish that he is a real estate professional and that he materially participates in the rental business.

Deduction of Qualified Business Income

The Act provides that an individual who owns an equity interest in a pass-through entity (“PTE”)[5] that is engaged in a qualified trade or business (“QTB”)[6] may deduct up to 20% of the qualified business income (“QBI”) allocated to him from the PTE.

The amount of this deduction may be limited, based upon the W-2 wages paid by the QTB and by the unadjusted basis (immediately after acquisition) of depreciable tangible property used by the QTB in the production of QBI (provided its recovery period has not expired).[7]

The issue of whether an activity, especially one that involves the rental of real property, is a “trade or business” (as opposed to an “investment”) of a taxpayer is ultimately one of fact in which the scope of a taxpayer’s activities, either directly or through agents, in connection with the property, is so extensive as to rise to the stature of a trade or business.

A taxpayer’s QBI from a QTB for a taxable year means his share of the net amount of qualified items of income, gain, deduction, and loss that are taken into account in determining the taxable income of the QTB for that year.

Items of income, gain, deduction, and loss are “qualified items” only to the extent they are effectively connected with the PTE’s conduct of a QTB within the U.S. “Qualified items” do not include specified investment-related income, gain, deductions, or loss. [8]

Excess Business Losses

The Act imposes another limitation on an individual’s ability to utilize a pass-through loss against other income, whether it is realized through a sole proprietorship, S corporation or partnership; this limitation is applied after the at-risk and passive loss rules.

Specifically, the taxpayer’s excess business losses are not allowed for the taxable year. An individual’s “excess business loss” for a taxable year is the excess of:

(a) the taxpayer’s aggregate deductions attributable to his trades or businesses for the year, over

(b) the sum of:

(i) the taxpayer’s aggregate gross income or gain for the year attributable to such trades or businesses, plus

(ii) $250,000 (or $500,000 in the case of a joint return).

In the case of a partnership or S corporation, this provision is applied at the individual partner or shareholder level. Each partner’s and each S corporation shareholder’s share of the PTE’s items of income, gain, deduction, or loss is taken into account in applying the limitation for the taxable year of the partner or shareholder.

The individual’s excess business loss for a taxable year is carried forward and treated as part of the taxpayer’s net operating loss carryforward in subsequent taxable years.[9]

Technical Termination of a Partnership

Prior to the Act, a partnership was considered “technically terminated” for tax purposes if, within a 12-month period, there was a sale or exchange of 50% or more of the total interest in the partnership’s capital or income. Upon a technical termination, the partnership’s taxable year closed, partnership-level elections generally ceased to apply, and the partnership’s depreciation recovery periods for its assets started anew.

The Act repealed the technical termination rule, which makes it easier for partners to transfer their partnership interests.

Profits Interest

A partnership may issue a profits interest (a “promote”) in the partnership to a service or management partner in exchange for the performance of services. The right of the profits interest partner to receive a share of the partnership’s future profits and appreciation does not include any right to receive money or other property upon the liquidation of the partnership immediately after the issuance of the profits interest.[10]

In general, the IRS has not treated the receipt of a partnership profits interest for services as a taxable event for the partnership or the partner.

By contrast, a partnership capital interest received for services has been includable in the partner’s income if the interest was transferable or was not subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture.[11]

In order to make it more difficult for certain profits interest partners to enjoy capital gain treatment for their share of partnership income, for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, the Act provides for a new three-year holding period.[12]

Specifically, the partnership assets sold must have been held by the partnership for at least three years in order for a profits interest partner’s share of such gain to enjoy the lower tax rate applicable to long-term capital gains.[13]

If the assets sold had not been held by the partnership for at least three years, the entire amount of any capital gain allocated to the profits interest would be treated as short-term capital gain and would be taxed up to a maximum rate of 37% as ordinary income.

An “applicable partnership interest” is one that is transferred to a partner in connection with his performance of “substantial” services in a trade or business that consists in whole or in part of (1) raising or returning capital, and (2) investing in, or disposing of, or developing real estate held for rental or investment.

This holding-period rule should not apply to a taxpayer who only provides services to a so-called “portfolio company.”

Real Property Taxes

Under the Act, State and local taxes are generally not allowed to an individual as a deduction[14] unless they are paid or accrued in carrying on a trade or business, or an activity for the production of income. Thus, for instance, in the case of property taxes, an individual may deduct such items if these taxes were imposed on business assets, such as residential rental property.

Additional Depreciation

Prior to the Act, the Code allowed an additional first-year depreciation deduction equal to 50% of the adjusted basis of “qualified property”[15] – including certain improvements to real property – for the year it was placed in service.

The Act modified the additional first-year depreciation deduction, expanded it to include the acquisition of used property, and increased the allowance to 100% for property placed in service after September 27, 2017, and before January 1, 2023.[16]

Election to Expense

Prior to the Act, a taxpayer could elect to deduct the cost of qualifying property, rather than to recover such costs through depreciation deductions, subject to certain limitations. The maximum amount a taxpayer could expense was $500,000 of the cost of qualifying property placed in service for the taxable year. This amount was reduced by the amount by which the cost of qualifying property placed in service during the taxable year exceeded $2 million. The $500,000 and $2 million amounts were indexed for inflation for taxable years beginning after 2015.

Qualifying property was defined to include, among other things, “qualified leasehold improvement property.”

The Act increased the maximum amount a taxpayer may expense to $1 million, and increased the phase-out threshold amount to $2.5 million. Thus, the maximum amount a taxpayer may expense, for taxable years beginning after 2017, is $1 million of the cost of qualifying property placed in service for the taxable year. The $1 million amount is reduced by the amount by which the cost of qualifying property placed in service during the taxable year exceeds $2.5 million. The $1 million and $2.5 million amounts are indexed for inflation for taxable years beginning after 2018.

The Act also expanded the definition of qualifying real property to include any of the following improvements to nonresidential real property placed in service after the date such property was first placed in service: roofs; heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning property; fire protection and alarm systems; and security systems.

Interest Deduction

The Act limits the deduction that a business may claim for “business interest” paid or accrued in computing its taxable income for any taxable year. In general, the deduction is limited to 30% of the adjusted taxable income of the business for such year. The amount of any business interest not allowed as a deduction for any taxable year may be carried forward indefinitely.

“Adjusted taxable income” means the taxable income of the business computed without regard to (1) any item of income, gain, deduction, or loss which is not properly allocable to the business; (2) any business interest or business interest income; (3) the amount of any NOL deduction; (4) the 20% of QBI deduction; and (5) certain other business deductions.[17]

The limitation does not apply to a business – including a real estate business – if its average annual gross receipts for the three-taxable-year period ending with the prior taxable year does not exceed $25 million.

In addition, a real estate business may elect that any real property development, redevelopment, construction, reconstruction, acquisition, conversion, rental, operation, management, leasing, or brokerage trade or business in which it is engaged not be treated as a trade or business for purposes of the limitation, in which case the limitation would not apply to such trade or business.[18]

Like-Kind Exchange

For years, the Code has provided that no gain or loss is recognized if property held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment is exchanged for property of a “like kind” which is to be held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment.

Over the last few years, several proposals had been introduced into Congress to eliminate the favorable tax treatment for like-kind exchanges.

The Act amended the tax-deferred like-kind exchange rules such that they will apply only to real property.

Corporate Tax Changes

Real property should rarely be held in a corporation, yet the fact remains that there are many such corporations.

In the case of a C corporation, or in the case of an S corporation for which the built-in gain recognition period has not yet expired, the Act provides some relief by reducing the corporate income tax rate from a maximum rate of 35% to a flat rate of 21%.

Although this reduction is significant, it likely is not enough to cause investors to contribute their real property to a corporation, or to “check the box” to treat their partnership or single-member LLC as an association (i.e., a corporation) for tax purposes. The benefits of ownership through a partnership are too great.

Moreover, the Act also takes away a benefit from certain corporate real estate developers. Specifically, these corporations may no longer exclude from their gross income any contribution of cash or property from a governmental entity or civic group.[19]

Estate Planning

Although the Act did not repeal the federal estate tax, it greatly increased the exemption amount, from $5.6 million to $11.2 million per person for 2018. It also left intact the portability election between spouses, and the exemption amount remains subject to adjustment for inflation.[20]

Importantly, the beneficiaries of a decedent’s estate continue to enjoy a stepped-up basis in the assets that pass to them upon his death, thereby providing income tax savings to the beneficiaries in the form of reduced gain or increased depreciation.[21]

For a more detailed discussion, click here.

A foreign individual investing in U.S. real property will often do so through a foreign corporate parent and a U.S. corporate subsidiary. The stock of the foreign corporation will not subject the foreigner to U.S. estate tax upon his demise. The U.S. corporation will be subject to U.S. corporate income tax – now at a 21% federal rate (down from a maximum of 35%) – and its dividend distributions, if any, will be subject to U.S. withholding at 30% or at a lower treaty rate. The disposition of the real property will be subject to U.S. corporate tax, but the subsequent liquidation of the U.S. subsidiary will not be subject to U.S. tax.[22]

Will the reduction of the federal corporate tax rate cause more foreign corporations to invest directly in U.S. real property, or through a PTE, rather than through a U.S. subsidiary? In general, no, because such an investment may cause the foreign corporation to be treated as engaged in a U.S. trade or business[23], and may subject the foreign corporation to the branch profits tax.

How about the limitation on interest deductions? The exception for a real estate trade or business should alleviate that concern.

Will the deduction based on qualified business income cause a foreign individual to invest in U.S. real property through a PTE?[24] Probably not, because this form of ownership may cause the foreigner to be treated as engaged in a U.S. trade or business, and an interest in such a PTE should be includible in his U.S. gross estate for estate tax purposes.

Where Will This Lead?

It’s too soon to tell – the Act has only been in force for just over two weeks.

That being said, and based on the foregoing discussion, there’s a lot in the Act with which the real estate industry should be pleased.[25]

Notwithstanding that fact, there are certain questions that many taxpayers are rightfully starting to ask regarding the structure of their real estate business. To give you a sense of the environment in which we find ourselves, I have been asked:

  • Whether an S corporation should convert into a C corporation (to take advantage of the reduced corporate tax rate);
  • Whether a C corporation should elect S corporation status (to enable its individual shareholders to take advantage of the 20%-of-QBI deduction);
  • Whether a partnership/LLC should incorporate or check the box (to take advantage of the reduced corporate rate);
  • Whether a corporation should convert into a partnership or disregarded entity (to enable its individual shareholders to take advantage of the 20%-of-QBI deduction)?

In response to these questions, I ask: who or what are the business owners, what is its capital structure, does it make regular distributions to its owners, what is the appreciation inherent in its assets, does it plan to dispose of its property in the relative short-term, etc.? The point is that each taxpayer is different.

I then remind them that some of the recently-enacted provisions are scheduled to expire in the not-too-distant future; for example, the QBI-based deduction goes away after 2025.

Generally speaking, however, and subject to the unique circumstances of the business entity, its owners, and its property, a real estate business entity that is treated as a partnership for tax purposes should not change its form; an S corporation should not revoke its “S” election; a C corporation should elect “S” status (assuming it will not be subject to the excise tax on excess passive investment income), and a corporation should not convert into a partnership.


[1] Pub. L. 115-97 (the “Act”).

[2] Do you recall the history of the TRA of 1986? Committee reports beginning mid-1985, the bill introduced late 1985, the law enacted October 1986, lots of transition rules. Oh well.

[3] Some of these provisions have been discussed in earlier posts on this blog. See, for example, this post and this post.

[4] For example, personal property identified as part of a cost segregation study that benefited from accelerated depreciation.

[5] A sole proprietorship, partnership/LLC, or S corporation.

[6] A QTB includes any trade or business conducted by a PTE other than specified businesses that primarily involve the performance of services.

[7] Query how much of a benefit will be enjoyed by an established real estate business which may not have many employees, and the property of which may have been fully depreciated.

[8] Investment-type income is excluded from QBI; significantly, investment income includes capital gain from the sale or other disposition of property used in the trade or business.

[9] NOL carryovers generally are allowed for a taxable year up to the lesser of (i) the carryover amount or (ii) 80 percent of taxable income determined without regard to the deduction for NOLs. In general, carrybacks are eliminated, and carryovers to other years may be carried forward indefinitely.

This may be a significant consideration for a C corporation that elects to be an S corporation, and vice versa, in that “C-corporation-NOLs” will not expire until they are actually used.

See the discussion of the recently enacted “excess business loss” rule applicable to individuals.

[10] The right may be subject to various vesting limitations.

[11] A capital interest for this purpose is an interest that would entitle the receiving partner to a share of the proceeds if the partnership’s assets were sold at fair market value (“FMV”) immediately after the issuance of the interest and the proceeds were distributed in liquidation.

[12] This rule applies even if the partner has made a sec. 83(b) election.

[13] It is unclear whether the interest must have been held for three years by the partner.

[14] There is an exception under which a joint return may claim an itemized deduction of up to $10,000 for the aggregate of (i) State and local property taxes not paid or accrued in carrying on a trade or business, or in an activity carried on for the production of income, and (ii) State and local income taxes (or sales taxes in lieu of income taxes) paid or accrued in the taxable year.

[15] Among other things, “qualified improvement property” includes any improvement to an interior portion of a building that was nonresidential real property if such improvement was placed in service after the date such building was first placed in service.

Qualified improvement property does not include any improvement for which the expenditure is attributable to the enlargement of the building, any elevator or escalator, or the internal structural framework of the building.

The Act also provides a 15-year MACRS recovery period for qualified improvement property.

[16] The allowance is phased out through 2025.

[17] Among these deductions is depreciation. Beginning in 2022, depreciation is accounted for.

[18] An electing business will not be entitled to bonus depreciation and will have to extend, slightly, the depreciation period for its real properties.

[19] Such contributions may be made in order to induce a business to move to, and establish itself in, a particular jurisdiction, the idea being that its presence would somehow benefit the public.

[20] Unfortunately, the exemption amount returns to its pre-Act levels after 2025.

[21] In the case of a partnership interest, the partnership must have a Sec. 754 election in effect in order to enjoy this benefit.

[22] Thanks to the so-called “cleansing rule.”

[23] Or it may elect to be so treated.

[24] Other than an S corporation, of course.

[25] Our focus has been on the tax benefits bestowed upon a closely held real estate business. Of course, there are other, non-business provisions that apply to individuals that may have some impact on the real estate market and real estate businesses generally.

Obviously, I am referring to the limitations on itemized deductions for real property taxes imposed on a personal residence and residential acquisition indebtedness, both of which may adversely affect higher-income individual taxpayers.

Against these changes, one must weigh the alternative minimum tax (which often reduces the benefit of deducting property taxes anyway), and the elimination of the so-called “Pease limitation” (which reduced the benefit of itemized deductions for higher-income individual taxpayers).

When the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act[1] was introduced on November 2, 2017, perhaps the single most important issue on the minds of many closely held business owners was the future of the estate tax: was it going to be repealed as had been promised? A closely related question – and perhaps of equal significance to these owners’ tax advisers – was whether an owner’s assets would receive a so-called “stepped-up” basis in the hands of those persons to whom the assets passed upon the owner’s death?

When the smoke cleared (only seven weeks later), the estate tax remained in place, but its reach was seriously limited, at least temporarily. Moreover, the stepped-up basis rule continued to benefit the beneficiaries of a decedent’s estate.

To better understand the change wrought by the Act – and to appreciate what it left intact – we begin with an overview of the federal transfer taxes.

The Estate and Gift Tax

The Code imposes a gift tax on certain lifetime transfers, an estate tax on certain transfers at death, and a generation-skipping transfer (“GST”) tax when such transfers are made to a “skip person.”

Estate Tax

The Code imposes a tax on the transfer of the taxable estate of a decedent who is a citizen or resident of the U.S. The taxable estate is determined by deducting from the value of the decedent’s gross estate any deductions provided for in the Code. After applying tax rates to determine a tentative amount of estate tax, certain credits are subtracted to determine estate tax liability.

Estate Tax

A decedent’s gross estate includes, to the extent provided for in other sections of the Code, the date-of-death value of all of a decedent’s property, real or personal, tangible or intangible, wherever situated. In the case of a business owner, the principal asset of his gross estate may be his interest in a closely held business. In general, the value of the property for this purpose is the fair market value of the property as of the date of the decedent’s death.

A decedent’s taxable estate is determined by subtracting from the value of his gross estate any deductions provided for in the Code. Among these deductions is one for certain transfers to a surviving spouse, the effect of which is to remove the assets transferred to the surviving spouse from the decedent’s estate tax base.

After accounting for any allowable deductions, a gross amount of estate tax is computed, using a top marginal tax rate of 40%.

In order to ensure that a decedent only gets one run up through the rate brackets for all lifetime gifts and transfers at death, his taxable estate is combined with the value of the “adjusted taxable gifts” made by the decedent during his life, before applying tax rates to determine a tentative total amount of tax. The portion of the tentative tax attributable to lifetime gifts is then subtracted from the total tentative tax to determine the gross estate tax.

The estate tax liability is then determined by subtracting any allowable credits from the gross estate tax. The most significant credit allowed for estate tax purposes is the unified credit.

The unified credit is available with respect to a taxpayer’s taxable transfers by gift and at death. The credit offsets the tax up to a specified cumulative amount of lifetime and testamentary transfers (the “exemption amount”). For 2017, the inflation-indexed exemption amount was set at $5.49 million; prior to the Act, it was set to increase to $5.6 million in 2018.

Any portion of an individual taxpayer’s exemption amount that is used during his lifetime to offset taxable gifts reduces the exemption amount that remains available at his death to offset the taxable value of his estate. In other words, the unified credit available at death is reduced by the amount of unified credit used to offset gift tax incurred on gifts made during the decedent’s life.

In the case of a married decedent, an election is available under which any exemption amount that was not used by the decedent may be used by the decedent’s surviving spouse (the so-called “portability election”) during her life or at her death.

The estate tax generally is due within nine months of a decedent’s death. However, in recognition of the illiquid nature of most closely held businesses, the Code generally allows the executor of a deceased business owner’s estate to elect to pay the estate tax attributable to an interest in a closely held business in up to ten installments. An estate is eligible for payment of the estate tax in installments if the value of the decedent’s interest in a closely held business exceeds 35 percent of the decedent’s adjusted gross estate (i.e., the gross estate less certain deductions).

If the election is made, the estate may defer payment of principal and pay only interest for the first five years[2], followed by up to 10 annual installments of principal and interest. This provision effectively extends the time for paying estate tax by 14 years from the original due date of the estate tax.

Gift Tax

The Code imposes a tax for each calendar year on the transfer of property by gift during such year by any individual. The amount of taxable gifts for a calendar year is determined by subtracting from the total amount of gifts made during the year: (1) the gift tax annual exclusion; and (2) allowable deductions.

The gift tax for a taxable year is determined by: (1) computing a tentative tax on the combined amount of all taxable gifts for such year and all prior calendar years using the common gift tax and estate tax rate (up to 40 percent); (2) computing a tentative tax only on all prior-year gifts; (3) subtracting the tentative tax on prior-year gifts from the tentative tax computed for all years to arrive at the portion of the total tentative tax attributable to current-year gifts; and, finally, (4) subtracting the amount of unified credit not consumed by prior-year gifts.

The amount of a taxpayer’s taxable gifts for the year is determined by subtracting from the total amount of the taxpayer’s gifts for the year the gift tax annual exclusion amount and any available deductions.

Donors of lifetime gifts are provided an annual exclusion of $15,000 per donee in 2018 (indexed for inflation from the 1997 annual exclusion amount of $10,000) for gifts of “present interests” in property. Married couples can gift up to $30,000 per donee per year without consuming any of their unified credit.

GST Tax

The GST tax is a separate tax that can apply in addition to either the gift tax or the estate tax. The tax rate and exemption amount for GST tax purposes are set by reference to the estate tax rules. The GST tax is imposed using the highest estate tax rate (40%). Tax is imposed on cumulative generation-skipping transfers in excess of the generation-skipping transfer tax exemption amount in effect for the year of the transfer. The generation-skipping transfer tax exemption for a given year is equal to the estate tax exemption amount in effect for that year ($5.49 million in 2017).

Basis in property received at death

A bequest, or other transfer at death, of appreciated (or loss) property is not an income tax realization event for the transferor-decedent or his estate, but the Code nevertheless provides special rules for determining a recipient’s income tax basis in assets received from a decedent.

Property acquired from a decedent or his estate generally takes a stepped-up basis in the hands of the recipient. “Stepped-up basis” means that the basis of property acquired from a decedent’s estate generally is the fair market value on the date of the decedent’s death. Providing a fair market value basis eliminates the recognition of income on any appreciation in value of the property that occurred prior to the decedent’s death (by stepping-up its basis).[3]

In the case of a closely held business, depending upon the nature of the business entity (for example, a partnership or a corporation) and of its assets, the income tax savings resulting from the basis step-up may be realized as reduced gain on the sale of the decedent’s interest in the business, or as a reduced income tax liability from the operation of the business (for example, in the form of increased depreciation or amortization deductions).

The Act

To the disappointment of many, the Act did not repeal the federal estate tax.

However, the Act greatly increased the federal estate tax, gift tax, and GST tax exemption amount – for decedents dying, and for gifts made, after December 31, 2017 and before January 1, 2026 – and it preserved portability.

The “basic exemption amount” was increased from $5 million (as of 2010) to $10 million; as indicated above, this amount is indexed for inflation occurring after 2011, and was set at $5.6 million for 2018 prior to the Act.

As a result of the Act, this exemption amount was doubled to $11.2 million per person beginning in 2018 – basically, $22.4 million per married couple – and will be adjusted annually for inflation through 2025.

To put this into perspective, over 109,000 estate tax returns were filed in 2001, of which approximately 50,000 were taxable. Compare this with 2016, when approximately 11,000 returns were filed, of which approximately 5,000 were taxable. The decline appears to be due primarily to the increase in the filing threshold (based on the exemption amount) from $675,000 in 2001 to $5.45 million in 2016.[4] An increase from $5.49 million in 2017 to $11.2 million in 2018 should have a similar effect.

In addition, and notwithstanding the increased exemption amount, the Act retained the stepped-up basis rule for determining the income tax basis of assets acquired from a decedent. As a result, property acquired from a decedent’s estate generally will continue to take a stepped-up basis.

Implications

As stated immediately above, the owners of many closely held businesses will not be subject to the federal estate tax – at least not through 2025[5] – thanks to the greatly increased exemption amount and to continued portability.

Thus, a deceased owner’s taxable (not gross) estate in 2018 – even if we only account for conservative valuations of his business interests and for reasonable estate administration expenses – may be as great as $22.4 million (assuming portability) without incurring any federal estate tax.

Moreover, this amount ignores the benefits of fairly conservative gift planning including, for example, the long-term impact of regular annual exclusion gifting (and gift-splitting between spouses), the effect of transfers made for partial consideration (as in a QPRT), or for full and adequate consideration (as in zeroed-out GRATs and installment sales), as well as the benefit of properly-structured life insurance that is not includible in the decedent’s estate.

With these tools, otherwise taxable estates[6], that potentially may be much larger than the new exemption amount, may be brought within its coverage.

The increased exemption amount will also allow many owners to secure a basis step-up for their assets upon their death without incurring additional estate tax, by allowing these owners to retain assets.

Of course, some states, like New York, will continue to impose an estate tax on estates that will not be subject to the federal estate tax.[7] In those cases, the higher federal exemption amount, coupled with the absence of a New York gift tax, provides an opportunity for many taxpayers to reduce their New York taxable estate without any federal estate or gift tax consequences, other than the loss of a basis step-up. The latter may be significant enough, however, that the taxpayer may decide to bear the 16% New York estate tax on his taxable estate rather than lose the income tax savings.[8]

Planning

In light of the foregoing, taxpayers should, at the very least, review their existing estate plan and the documents that will implement it – “for man also knoweth not his time.”[9]

For example, wills or revocable trusts that provide for a mandatory credit shelter or bypass trust may have to be revised, depending upon the expected size of the estate, lest the increased exemption amount defeat one’s testamentary plan.

A more flexible instrument may be warranted – perhaps one that relies upon a disclaimer by a surviving spouse – especially given the December 31, 2025 expiration date for the increased exemption amount, and the “scheduled” reversion in 2026 to the pre-2018 exemption level (albeit adjusted for inflation).

The buy-out provisions of shareholder, partnership and operating agreements should also be reviewed in light of what may be a reduced need for liquidity following the death of an owner. For example, should such a buy-out be mandatory?[10]

Some taxpayers, with larger estates, may want to take advantage of the increased exemption amount before it expires in 2026 so as to remove assets, and the income and appreciation thereon, from their estates.[11] This applies for both estate and GST tax purposes; a trust for the benefit of skip persons may be funded now using the temporarily increased GST exemption amount.

Of course, gifting comes at a cost: the loss of stepped-up basis upon the death of the taxpayer.

Conversely, some taxpayers may want to consider bringing certain appreciated assets (for example, assets that they may have previously gifted to a family member) back into their estates in order to attain the benefit of a basis step-up.

Those taxpayers who decide to take advantage of the increased exemption amount by making lifetime gifts should consider how they may best leverage it.

Some New York taxpayers – who may otherwise have to reduce their gross estates in order to reduce their NY estate tax burden – may want to consider changing their domicile so as to avoid the New York estate tax entirely while holding on to their assets (that would be sheltered by the increased exemption amount) and thereby securing the step-up in basis upon their passing.

There may also be other planning options to consider, some of which have been considered in earlier posts to this blog. For example, ESBTs may now include nonresident aliens as potential current beneficiaries without causing the S corporation to lose its “S” election.

As always, tax savings, estate planning, and gifting strategies have to be considered in light of what the taxpayer is comfortable giving up. In the case of a closely held business owner, any loss of control may be untenable, as may the reduction of cash flow that is attributable to his ownership interest.

Moreover, there are non-tax reasons for structuring the disposition of one’s estate that may far outweigh any tax savings that may result from a different disposition. Tails, dogs, wagging – you know the idiom.


*  At least until 2026 – keep reading.  With apologies to St. Paul. 1 Corinthians, 15:55.

[1] Pub. L. 115-97 (the “Act”); signed into law on December 22, 2017.

[2] The interest rate applicable to the amount of estate tax attributable to the taxable value of the closely held business in excess of $1 million (adjusted for inflation) is equal to 45 percent of the rate applicable to underpayments of tax (i.e., 45 percent of the Federal short-term rate plus three percentage points). This interest is not deductible for estate or income tax purposes.

[3] It also eliminates the tax benefit from any unrealized loss (by stepping-down its basis to fair market value).

[4] http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/briefing-book/how-many-people-pay-estate-tax

[5] This provision expires after 2025. Assuming the provision survives beyond 2020 (the next presidential election), query whether the exemption amount will be scaled back. Has the proverbial cat been let out of the proverbial bag?

[6] Including individuals who had already exhausted their pre-2018 exemption amount.

[7] The NY estate tax exemption amount for 2018 is $5.25 million.

[8] In the case of a NYC decedent, for example, the tax savings to be considered would include the federal capital gains tax of 20%, the federal surtax on net investment income of 3.8%, the NY State income tax of 8.82%, and the NYC income tax of 3.876%. Of course, the likelihood of an asset’s being sold after death also has to be considered.

[9] Ecclesiastes, 9:12. As morbid as it may sound, planning for an elderly or ill taxpayer is different from planning for a younger or healthier individual – it is especially so now given the 2026 expiration of the increased exemption amount.

[10] Of course, there may be overriding business reasons for such a buy-out.

[11] If the exemption amount were to return to its pre-2018 levels in 2026, query how the IRS will account for any pre-2026 gifts that were covered by the increased exemption amount. The Act directs the IRS to issue regulations addressing this point.

Yesterday’s post examined various changes to the taxation of S corporations, partnerships, and their owners.

Today, we will focus on a number of partnership-specific issues that were addressed by the Act.

Profits Interests2017 Tax Act

A partnership may issue a profits (or “carried”) interest in the partnership to a service or management partner in exchange for their performance of services.[1] The right of the profits interest partner to receive a share of the partnership’s future profits and appreciation does not include any right to receive money or other property upon the liquidation of the partnership immediately after the issuance of the profits interest. The right may be subject to various vesting limitations.[2]

In general, the IRS has not treated the receipt of a partnership profits interest for services as a taxable event for the partnership or the partner. However, this favorable tax treatment did not apply if: (1) the profits interest related to a substantially certain and predictable stream of income from partnership assets (i.e., one that could be readily valued); or (2) within two years of receipt, the partner disposed of the profits interest. More recent guidance clarified that this treatment would apply with respect to a substantially unvested profits interest, provided the service partner took into income his share of partnership income (i.e., the service provider is treated as the owner of the interest from the date of its grant), and the partnership did not deduct any amount of the FMV of the interest as compensation, either on grant or on vesting of the profits interest.[3]

By contrast, a partnership capital interest received for services has been includable in the partner’s income if the interest was transferable or was not subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture.[4] A capital interest for this purpose is an interest that would entitle the receiving partner to a share of the proceeds if the partnership’s assets were sold at fair market value (“FMV”) immediately after the issuance of the interest and the proceeds were distributed in liquidation.

Under general partnership tax principles, notwithstanding that a partner’s holding period for his profits interest may not exceed one year, the character of any long-term capital gain recognized by the partnership on the sale or exchange of its assets has been treated as long-term capital gain in the hands of the profits partner to whom such gain was allocated and, thus, eligible for the lower applicable tax rate.

The Act

In order to make it more difficult for some profits interest partners to enjoy capital gain treatment for their share of partnership income, for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, the Act provides for a new three-year holding period for certain net long-term capital gain allocated to an applicable partnership interest.

Specifically, the partnership assets sold must have been held by the partnership for at least three years[5] in order for a profits interest partner’s share of such gain to enjoy the lower tax rate applicable to long-term capital gains.

If the assets sold had not been held by the partnership for at least three years, the entire amount of any capital gain allocated to the profits interest would be treated as short-term capital gain, and would be taxed up to a maximum rate of 37% as ordinary income.[6]

An “applicable partnership interest” is any interest in a partnership that is transferred to a partner in connection with the performance of “substantial” services in any applicable trade or business.[7]

In general, an “applicable trade or business” means any activity conducted on a regular, continuous, and substantial basis that consists in whole or in part of: (1) raising or returning capital, and (2) investing in, or disposing of, or developing specified assets.

“Developing” specified assets takes place, for example, if it is represented to investors or lenders that the value, price, or yield of a portfolio business may be enhanced or increased in connection with choices or actions of a service provider or of others acting in concert with the service provider.

“Specified assets” means securities, commodities, real estate held for rental or investment, as well as other enumerated assets.

If a profits interest is not an applicable partnership interest, then its tax treatment should continue to be governed by the guidance previously issued by the IRS.[8]

Adjusting Inside Basis

In general, a partnership does not adjust the basis of partnership property following the transfer of a partnership interest unless the partnership has made an election under Code Sec. 754 to make such basis adjustments, or the partnership has a substantial built-in loss[9] immediately after the transfer.

If an election is in effect, or if the partnership has a substantial built-in loss immediately after the transfer, inside basis adjustments are made only with respect to the transferee partner. These adjustments account for the difference between the transferee partner’s proportionate share of the adjusted basis of the partnership property and the transferee’s basis in its partnership interest. The adjustments are intended to adjust the basis of partnership property to approximate the result of a direct purchase of the property by the transferee partner, and to thereby eliminate any unwarranted advantage (in the case of a downward adjustment) or disadvantage (in the case of an upward adjustment) for the transferee.

For example, without a mandatory reduction in a transferee partner’s share of a partnership’s inside basis for an asset, the transferee may be allocated a tax loss from the partnership without suffering a corresponding economic loss. Under such circumstances, if a Sec. 754 election were not in effect, it is unlikely that the partnership would make the election so as to wipe out the advantage enjoyed by the transferee partner.

The Act

In order to further reduce the potential for abuse, the Act expands the definition of a “substantial built-in loss” such that, in addition to the present-law definition, for transfers of partnership interests made after December 31, 2017, a substantial built-in loss also exists if the transferee would be allocated a loss in excess of $250,000 upon a hypothetical disposition by the partnership of all of its assets in a fully taxable transaction for cash equal to the assets’ FMV, immediately after the transfer of the partnership interest.

Limiting a Partner’s Share of Loss

A partner’s distributive share of partnership loss is allowed only to the extent of the adjusted basis (before reduction by current year’s losses) of the partner’s interest in the partnership at the end of the partnership taxable year in which the loss occurred.

Any disallowed loss is allowable as a deduction at the end of succeeding partnership taxable years, to the extent that the partner’s adjusted basis for its partnership interest at the end of any such year exceeds zero (before reduction by the loss for the year).

In general, a partner’s basis in its partnership interest is decreased (but not below zero) by distributions by the partnership and the partner’s distributive share of partnership losses and expenditures. In the case of a charitable contribution, a partner’s basis is reduced by the partner’s distributive share of the adjusted basis of the contributed property.

In computing its taxable income, no deductions for foreign taxes and charitable contributions are allowed to the partnership – instead, a partner takes into account his distributive share of the foreign taxes paid, and the charitable contributions made, by the partnership for the taxable year.

However, in applying the basis limitation on partner losses, the IRS has not taken into account the partner’s share of partnership charitable contributions and foreign taxes.

By contrast, under the S corporation basis limitation rules (see above), the shareholder’s pro rata share of charitable contributions and foreign taxes are taken into account.

The Act

In order to remedy this inconsistency in treatment between S corporations and partnerships, the Act modifies the basis limitation on partner losses to provide that the limitation takes into account a partner’s distributive share of partnership charitable contributions (to the extent of the partnership’s basis for the contributed property)[10] and foreign taxes. Thus, effective for partnership taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, the amount of the basis limitation on partner losses is decreased to reflect these items.

What’s Next?

This marks the end of our three-post review of the more significant changes in the taxation of pass-through entities resulting from the Act.

In general, these changes appear to be favorable for the closely held business and its owners, though they do not deliver the promised-for simplification.

Indeed, the new statutory provisions raise a number of questions for which taxpayers and their advisers must await guidance from the IRS and, perhaps, from the Joint Committee (in the form of a “Blue Book”).

However, in light of the administration’s bias against the issuance of new regulations, and given its reduction of the resources available to the IRS, query when such guidance will be forthcoming, and in what form.

Until then, it will behoove practitioners to act cautiously, to keep options open, and to focus on the Act’s legislative history (including the examples contained therein) in ascertaining the intent of certain provisions and in determining an appropriate course of action for clients.

As they used to say on Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”

[Next week, we’ll take a look at the Act’s changes to the estate and gift tax, and how it may impact the owners of a closely held business, as well as the changes to the taxation of C corporations.]


[1]It may be issued in lieu of a management fee that would be taxed as ordinary income.

[2]See Sec. 83 of the Code.

[3]Rev. Proc. 93-27, Rev. Proc. 2001-43.

[4]In general, property is subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture if the recipient’s right to the property is conditioned on the future performance of substantial services, or if the right is subject to a condition other than the performance of services, provided that the condition relates to a purpose of the transfer and there is a substantial possibility that the property will be forfeited if the condition does not occur.

[5]Notwithstanding Code Sec. 83 or any election made by the profits interest holder under Sec. 83(b); for example, even if the interest was vested when issued, or the service provider elected under Sec. 83(b) of the Code to include the FMV of the interest in his gross income upon receipt, thus beginning a holding period for the interest.

[6]Query whether this will have any impact on profits interests that are issued in the context of a PE firm or a real estate venture, where the time frame for a sale of the underlying asset will likely exceed three years.The Act also provides a special rule for transfers by a taxpayer to related persons

[7]A partnership interest will not fail to be treated as transferred in connection with the performance of services merely because the taxpayer also made a capital contribution to the partnership. An applicable partnership interest does not include an interest in a partnership held by a corporation.

[8]Rev. Proc. 93-27, Rev. Proc. 2001-43, Prop. Reg. REG-105346-03.

[9]Prior to the Act, a “substantial built-in loss” existed only if the partnership’s adjusted basis in its property exceeded by more than $250,000 the FMV of the partnership property.

[10]The basis limitation does not apply to the excess of the contributed property’s FMV over its adjusted basis.

Our last post reviewed the “20% deduction” that may now be available to the owners of certain pass-through entities based upon their qualified business income; as we saw, there are many questions that remain unanswered.[1]

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017

Today’s post is the first of two[2] this week in which we continue our consideration of those income tax provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017[3] that most directly relate to pass-through entities – S corporations, partnerships, and sole proprietorships – and their owners.

Excess Business Losses

In determining their taxable income for a taxable year, the shareholders of an S corporation and the partners of a partnership[4] are allocated their share of the pass-through entity’s losses for such year. However, there are a number of rules that limit the ability of these owners to deduct these losses.

As a threshold matter, the aggregate amount of losses taken into account by a shareholder or partner for a taxable year cannot exceed, (i) in the case of an S corporation, the sum of the shareholder’s adjusted basis for his stock, plus his adjusted basis of any corporate indebtedness owed to the shareholder, and, (ii) in the case of a partnership, the adjusted basis of such partner’s interest in the partnership. Any excess for which a deduction is not allowed in a taxable year is carried forward.

Any pass-through loss that is allowed under the above “basis-limitation rule” must also be tested under the “at-risk” and, then, the “passive activity” loss rules before it may be utilized by a shareholder or partner in determining his taxable income. A loss that is disallowed under either of these rules is “suspended” and is carried forward indefinitely to succeeding taxable years until the taxpayer has more amounts at risk, or realizes more passive income, or disposes of his interest in the pass-through entity.

If the loss is not limited by the foregoing rules, it may be applied against the shareholder’s or the partner’s other income.

The Act

The Act imposes another limitation on a non-corporate taxpayer’s ability to utilize a pass-through loss against other income – whether it is realized through a sole proprietorship, S corporation or partnership – which is applied after the basis-limitation, at-risk, and passive loss rules.

Specifically, for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017 and before January 1, 2026, the excess business losses of a non-corporate taxpayer are not allowed for the taxable year.

A taxpayer’s “excess business loss” for a taxable year is the excess of:

(a) the taxpayer’s aggregate deductions attributable to his trades or businesses for the year, over

(b) the sum of:

(i) the taxpayer’s aggregate gross income or gain for the year attributable to such trades or businesses, plus

(ii) $250,000 (or $500,000 in the case of a joint return).[5]

In the case of a partnership or S corporation, this provision (as in the case of the at-risk and passive activity rules) is applied at the partner or shareholder level. Each partner’s and each S corporation shareholder’s share of the pass-through entity’s items of income, gain, deduction, or loss are taken into account in applying the limitation for the taxable year of the partner or S corporation shareholder.

The non-corporate taxpayer’s excess business loss for a taxable year is carried forward and treated as part of the taxpayer’s net operating loss (“NOL”) carryforward in subsequent taxable years.[6]

Thus, consistent with the principle underlying the new rules applicable to NOLs, the excess business loss rule seeks to limit and defer the tax benefit attributable to the “excess” loss.[7]

Accounting Methods

Taxpayers using the cash method of accounting generally recognize items of income when actually or constructively received and items of expense when paid. The cash method is administratively easy and provides the taxpayer flexibility in the timing of income recognition. It is the method used by most individual taxpayers, including sole proprietorships.

Taxpayers using an accrual method generally accrue items of income when “all the events” have occurred that fix the right to receive the income, and the amount of the income can be determined with reasonable accuracy.

Taxpayers using an accrual method of accounting generally may not deduct items of expense prior to when all events have occurred that fix the obligation to pay the liability, the amount of the liability can be determined with reasonable accuracy, and “economic performance” has occurred.

In general, a C corporation, or a partnership that has a C corporation as a partner, may not use the cash method. Prior to the Act, an exception was made to the extent the average annual gross receipts of a C corporation, or of a partnership with a C corporation partner, did not exceed $5 million for all prior years (the “gross receipts test”).

The Act

Under the Act, C corporations and partnerships with C corporation partners may use the cash method of accounting if their annual average gross receipts that do not exceed $25 million for the prior three-taxable-year period (not for all periods, as under prior law), regardless of whether the purchase, production, or sale of merchandise is an income-producing factor.[8]

The Act retains the exceptions from the required use of the accrual method for qualified personal service corporations and for taxpayers other than C corporations. Thus, S corporations, and partnerships without C corporation partners, are allowed to use the cash method without regard to whether they meet the $25 million gross receipts test, so long as the cash method clearly reflects income.

Changes in Accounting Method

Because an S corporation may be able to use the cash method of accounting while an otherwise identical C corporation may be required to use the accrual method, the voluntary or involuntary conversion of an S corporation into a C corporation may cause the corporation to switch its accounting method.[9]

In general, any resulting net adjustments that increase taxable income are generally taken into account by the corporation ratably, over a four-year period beginning with the year of the change.

The Act

Under the Act, any adjustment for an eligible terminated S corporation that is attributable to the revocation of its S corporation election – i.e., a change from the cash method to the accrual method, notwithstanding the new $25 million gross receipts test – is taken into account ratably during the six-taxable-year period beginning with the year of change.

An “eligible terminated S corporation” is any C corporation which (1) was an S corporation the day before the enactment of the Act, (2) during the two-year period beginning on the date of such enactment revokes its S corporation election, and (3) all of the owners of which, on the date the S corporation election is revoked, are the same owners (and in identical proportions) as the owners on the date of enactment.

Post-S-Termination Distributions

Prior to the Act, distributions of cash by a former S corporation to its shareholders during the one-year post-termination transition period (to the extent of the accumulated adjustment account, or “AAA”) were tax-free to the shareholders and reduced the adjusted basis of the stock.

The Act

Under the Act, in the case of a distribution of money by an “eligible terminated S corporation” (see above) after the post-termination transition period, the AAA will be “allocated to such distribution,” and the distribution will be “chargeable to” the corporation’s accumulated earnings and profits, in the same ratio as the amount of the AAA bears to the amount the accumulated earnings and profits.

Thus, some portion of the distribution may be treated as a taxable dividend to the shareholders.

Electing Small Business Trust (“ESBT”)

Only certain types of trusts are eligible to be shareholders of an S corporation. One such trust is the ESBT. Generally, the eligible beneficiaries of an ESBT include individuals, estates, and certain charitable organizations eligible to hold S corporation stock directly. Prior to the Act, a nonresident alien individual could not be a potential current beneficiary[10] of an ESBT.

The Act

Beginning January 1, 2018, a nonresident alien individual may be a potential current beneficiary of an ESBT.

Of course, the S corporation stock held by the ESBT may not, itself, be distributed to the nonresident alien without terminating the S corporation election, though the income therefrom may be.

ESBTs and Charitable Contributions

In addition to its non-separately computed income or loss, an S corporation reports to its shareholders their pro rata share of certain separately stated items of income, loss, deduction, and credit, including charitable contributions made by the S corporation. The treatment of such charitable contributions depends on the tax status of the shareholder.

Generally, a trust is allowed a charitable contribution deduction for amounts of gross income, without limitation, which pursuant to the terms of the governing instrument are paid for a charitable purpose. No carryover of excess contributions is allowed. An individual, by contrast, is allowed a charitable contribution deduction limited to certain percentages of adjusted gross income, generally, with a five-year carryforward of amounts in excess of this limitation.

Prior to the Act, the deduction for charitable contributions applicable to trusts – rather than the deduction applicable to individuals – applied to an ESBT.

The Act

Effective for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, the Act provides that the charitable contribution deduction of an ESBT is not determined by the rules generally applicable to trusts but, rather, by the rules applicable to individuals.

Thus, the percentage limitations and carryforward provisions applicable to individuals apply to charitable contributions made by the portion of an ESBT holding S corporation stock.

Technical Termination of Partnerships

Prior to the Act, a partnership was considered “technically terminated” for tax purposes if, within a 12-month period, there was a sale or exchange[11] of fifty percent or more of the total interest in the partnership’s capital or income. Upon a technical termination, the partnership’s taxable year closed, resulting in a short taxable year, partnership-level elections generally ceased to apply, and the partnership’s depreciation recovery periods for its assets started anew.[12]

In other words, a “trap for the unwary” as the saying goes.

However, a technical termination could often prove a “blessing,” as where the sale of a fifty percent interest afforded the terminating partnership an opportunity to make an irrevocable “Section 754 election, thereby generating a beneficial upward inside basis adjustment for the acquiring partner, following which the otherwise irrevocable Section 754 election (and its potential for a downward adjustment on a later transfer), as well as any other “unwanted” elections, would disappear as a result of the termination.

The Act

The Act repeals the technical termination rule, effective for partnership taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017. Thus, the partnership in which a 50% of more interest was sold would be treated as continuing, and its tax elections would remain in effect.[13]

Tomorrow’s Post

Tomorrow, we will continue our discussion regarding the treatment of pass-through entities under the Act, including the revised taxation of profits interests.


[1] For example, when is an employee’s reputation or skill the “principal asset” of a trade or business, such that the trade or business should be treated as a specified service trade or business that does not qualify for the deduction? Should we be looking to the “personal goodwill” line of cases for guidance? For example, would the absence of an employment or non-competition agreement negate the existence of a trade or business “asset?” Or should we wait for the IRS to issue guidance?
[2] The next post will appear tomorrow.
[3] Pub. L. 115-97; the “Act.”
[4] Including a limited liability company that is treated as a partnership for tax purposes.
[5] Indexed for inflation after 2018.
[6] As we will see in a later post, NOL carryovers generally are allowed for a taxable year up to the lesser of (i) the carryover amount or (ii) 80 percent of taxable income determined without regard to the deduction for NOLs. In general, carrybacks are eliminated, and carryovers to other years may be carried forward indefinitely.
[7] Query whether any excess business loss that is carried forward will be allowed in full upon the taxpayer’s disposition of the trade or business to which such loss is attributable.
[8] The $25 million amount is indexed for inflation for taxable years beginning after 2018.
[9] Congress may believe that the reduction in the C corporation tax rate to a flat 21% may cause the shareholders of some S corporations (for example, those that generate ordinary income – as opposed to capital gain – and that do not make dividend distributions) to revoke the S election.
[10] One who is entitled to, or in the discretion of the trustee may, receive a distribution from the principal or income of the trust on a current basis.
[11] A liquidation of an interest was not counted in applying the 50% test, nor was a gift or a bequest.
[12] The terminated partnership retained its EIN.
[13] Of course, if all of the partnership interests were sold to a single person, the partnership would cease to be treated as such for tax purposes under Code Sec. 708(b)(1)(A). See Rev. Rul. 99-6.