Except when it is.
Mr. Blodgett had an S corporation called Glass Blocks Unlimited, which “sold and distributed ‘glass blocks’ for the real estate market in North America.” He was the sole shareholder and president of the company.
The Tax Court lays out some key facts (my emphasis, footnotes omitted):
He worked full time for petitioner, which had no other full-time employees. He was responsible for all operational and financial decisions of the company, and he performed nearly all of the work necessary to run the business. Petitioner additionally used an unspecified number of day laborers, whom it paid totals of $39,733 and $41,453 in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Petitioner did not on its 2007 and 2008 Forms 1120S report paying Mr. Blodgett a salary or wages. It did, however, distribute money to him as cash was available and he asked for it. Petitioner distributed not less than $30,844 to Mr. Blodgett over the course of 2007. During 2008, petitioner made distributions to Mr. Blodgett totaling not less than $31,644.
The IRS treated the distributions as taxable wages to the taxpayer and assessed FICA and Medicare taxes. The taxpayer disagreed, saying that the his “reasonable” compensation was lower than that assessed by the IRS. The judge sided with the IRS:
As president of the company, Mr. Blodgett was petitioner’s only officer. Mr. Blodgett was also petitioner’s sole full-time worker in 2007 and 2008. He performed substantially all of the work necessary to operate the business, including processing orders, collecting payments, arranging shipment of goods, managing inventory, and handling customer relations. His services generated all of petitioner’s income.
Because Mr. Blodgett was petitioner’s employee for the periods at issue and performed substantial services for it yet it did not pay him a salary, its distributions to him are deemed wages and thus are subject to Federal employment taxes.
The taxpayer also said some of the distributions were repayment of loans to the company. Here the taxpayer was the victim of informal bookkeeping:
There were no written agreements or promissory notes supporting Mr. Blodgett’s testimony that the transfers were loans. While it is true that a portion of the transfers was reported as loans from shareholders on petitioner’s Forms 1120S, that entry is of little value without the support of other objective criteria. Indeed, petitioner did not even report the $10,000 transfer as a shareholder loan on its 2008 return. The absence of notes or other instruments, plus petitioner’s failure to treat the $10,000 transfer as a loan at all, indicates that the transfers were not loans.
To make things worse, the court upheld late payment penalties on the payroll taxes.
I think the taxpayer gets a raw deal here. The IRS imposed $30,844 of wages on the taxpayer in 2007, even though the corporation’s net taxable income for the year was only $877, not counting the “wages.” It hit him with another $31,644 if wages for 2008, when pre-wage income was only $8,950. In other words, the Tax Court expected the corporation to incur a taxable loss just to generate some payroll taxes for the IRS. That’s ridiculous, and a worse result than the same taxpayer would have had running the business on a Schedule C.
Furthermore, the Tax Court was too cavalier in disregarding the loans and repayments. It’s wrong to expect a one-man corporation to generate prissy paperwork when the shareholder advances funds. Yet because he didn’t have pieces of paper with the magic words, he got stuck with payroll taxes — and penalties.
The Moral? When advancing and withdrawing funds from an S corporation, be sure to generate the appropriate prissy paperwork. And if a wholly-owned S corporation generates enough cash to distribute to an owner working in the business, set a salary and pay the payroll taxes on at least a “reasonable” amount, or the IRS might impose payroll taxes on all of it. You have to protect yourself from an unreasonable IRS assessment, because it looks like the Tax Court won’t.