In the misty early days of my tax career, S corporation elections were a big thing. There was a grace period after the passage of the 1986 Tax Reform Act where you could make the election and avoid having to deal with the built-in gain tax.
I remember calling on a prospect C corporation, thinking I could easily sell the merits of escaping the second layer of corporation tax. They were ready for me. They explained that they didn’t need an S corporation election because, as I remember it, they could always W-2 their income to the owner to zero out their taxable income. They then made an entry to record a “loan” or capital contribution for the same amount from the owner to the corporation, so no actual cash changed hands. That’s what they said they always did, and they’d never been audited.
I sputtered, “that doesn’t work,” but it apparently worked fine, as long as the IRS never called. Needless to say, I failed to land the prospect. I went back to the office determined to find a case with the same facts. I never did find the perfect case — until now.
Yesterday the Tax Court ruled that a version of this trick didn’t work for a Minnesota C corporation architectural practice. The stakes are higher for “personal service corporations,” including architects, as they don’t get to use the lower C corporation brackets for their taxable income; they pay 35% from dollar one. Many corporations accept that, assuming they can wipe out their taxable income with year-end bonuses to owner-employees; that way they retain a few tax-free fringe benefits unavailable to S corporation shareholders.
The Tax Court explains how the Minnesota taxpayer went about this (my emphasis, footnotes omitted):
In 2008 Vanney Associates paid Mr. Vanney monthly wages totaling $240,000. At the end of each year, it was the Vanneys’ practice to determine Vanney Associates’ remaining profit after paying any outstanding bills and paying bonuses to employees. After determining this amount, Ms. Vanney would prepare a check on behalf of Vanney Associates and pay the remaining profit to Mr. Vanney as a yearend bonus. The Vanneys testified that their intent behind the yearend bonus was only to pay out the remaining profit; it was not to zero out the tax liability of Vanney Associates even if that was the effect.
On December 30, 2008, Vanney Associates paid Mr. Vanney a yearend bonus totaling $815,000. After withholding and paying to the IRS the appropriate Federal income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes, Vanney Associates wrote a check to Mr. Vanney for $464,183. Mr. Vanney signed the check on behalf of Vanney Associates and then endorsed the check in his own name and made it payable to Vanney Associates. He never attempted to cash the check. Ms. Vanney recorded the payment on the books as a loan from Mr. Vanney, and Vanney Associates repaid Mr. Vanney in March 2009.
Tax Court Judge Buch found that the check was never cashed for good reasons:
Mr. Vanney testified that he “believe[d]” he knew that Vanney Associates did not have the funds necessary to honor the check. However, he maintained that Vanney Associates could have gotten a loan to cover the check.
Mr. Vanney was the sole shareholder of Vanney Associates. Ms. Vanney, as Vanney Associates’ bookkeeper, knew or should have known that Vanney Associates did not have the funds to cover the bonus check to Mr. Vanney, and Mr. Vanney testified to having at least some idea of this as well. Vanney Associates argues that the payment was unconditional and payment occurred when Mr. Vanney took possession of the check. Vanney Associates cites O’Connor v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 1954-90, where this Court held that “[t]he essential element is that the control of property distributed by way of a dividend must have passed absolutely and irrevocably”. The Court in O’Connor also relied on the fact that the payee had “unrestricted use” of the money and the “amount was unqualifiedly his, to do with as he wished.” That is not the case before us. If anything, Mr. Vanney had only restricted use of the check. He could not cash it at the bank, use it to pay a debt, or use it to make a loan to someone other than to Vanney Associates. In fact, Mr. Vanney’s only option to make use of the money at that time was to lend it back to Vanney Associates because the check could not be honored. Additionally, we have previously held that although a taxpayer maintains possession of a check, the amount of the check may not be treated as a distribution or may not be included in gross income when the account has insufficient funds to honor the check.
Accordingly, respondent’s disallowance of a portion of the deduction for officer compensation is sustained.
I can’t time travel to the 1980s to show this case to my now-defunct prospect corporation, but I suspect there are plenty of other C corporations that still do this. It only works if the IRS never calls, and if they do, the value of the C corporation fringes is unlikely to cover their additional C corporation taxes.
Christopher Bergin, The Church of Corporate Inversions (Tax Analysts Blog): “I never thought I’d miss stories about Lois Lerner. But if we are going to talk about fairness in our tax system and raising enough revenue to support the people’s government, dealing with the increasingly dysfunctional IRS is just one of the problems we face that are far more important than corporate inversions.”
Speaking of worshipping at The Church of Corporate Inversions: New CTJ Report: Congress Should Require Inverting Corporations to Pay Up Taxes They Owe on Profits Held Offshore (Steve Warnhoff, Tax Justice Blog)
Paul Neiffer, How Do We Plan For Section 179 in 2014. “Now, we are fairly confident that Section 179 will be increased, but we probably will not know until the last week of the year and we may get 50% bonus depreciation back too.”
Russ Fox, Cash & Carry. A restaurateur discovers that all receipts are taxable, even if the customer doesn’t use a credit card.
Leslie Book, Technology and Tax Administration: The Appeals Virtual Service Delivery Program (Procedurally Taxing)
Amber Athey, House September Agenda Includes Potential Tax Changes (Tax Policy Blog). Mostly extenders, none of which seem to be going anywhere until after the elections.
TaxProf, The IRS Scandal, Day 491
Career Corner. The Obvious Link Between Inadequate Staffing and Stress Explains Why You Hate Your Life (Adrienne Gonzalez, Going Concern).