In December 2010, an Iowa district court decided Watson, a reasonable compensation case involving an S corporation shareholder-employee. For a primer on why reasonable compensation is a frequently litigated issue with regards to closely held S corporations, click here.
Watson, in many respects, was a precedent-setting case in the S corporation reasonable compensation arena, as it shed much-needed light on the methodology the IRS and the courts will employ to determine reasonable compensation, providing an analytical approach tax advisers could follow when guiding their clients.
Today, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision in Watson, holding that an S corporation shareholder-employee (Watson) who paid himself only $24,000 in salary during 2002 and 2003 while withdrawing over $375,000 in distributions was not reasonably compensated for his services. The court further upheld the district court’s determination of an annual reasonable compensation amount of $93,000, requiring Watson to recharacterize $69,000 of distributions in each year as salary. As a result, the corporation and Watson were held liable for over $23,000 in payroll taxes, penalties, and interest.
Facts in Watson:
David Watson — like many of the subjects of reasonable compensation scrutiny — was a CPA. He was also the sole shareholder and employee of an S corporation, which in turn was a 25% shareholder in a very successful accounting firm. Watson’s share of the revenue generated by the accounting firm was allocated to his S corporation, which would then pay Watson a salary and distributions. Any amounts not paid out in salary by the corporation were reported by Watson as his share of the S corporation’s income on his personal tax return, where it was not subject to payroll tax.[i]
In 2002 and 2003, Watson set his compensation from his wholly owned corporation at a mere $24,000 per year, an amount that was less than what first-year employees at his firm were earning. In comparison, Watson received distributions of $203,651 and $175,470, respectively, in those years.
The IRS challenged Watson’s compensation as being unreasonably low; arguing that by foregoing salary in favor of distributions, Watson and the S corporation were avoiding payroll tax responsibilities.
Significance of Watson
In nearly all of the S corporation reasonable compensation cases that preceded Watson, the shareholder-employee failed to take any salary but withdrew distributions, leaving the IRS and the courts the simple task of reclassifying the distributions as compensation for services.
Because Watson actually reported compensation of $24,000 in each of the years in question, however, the Iowa District Court and the Eighth Circuit was faced with an issue of first impression: quantifying just what constituted “reasonable compensation” for Watson’s services. The resulting analysis provided the first court-approved roadmap for tax advisers to use in setting appropriate salary amounts for their S corporation shareholder-employee clients.
IRS Approach, District Court Decision
In setting Watson’s salary, the IRS engaged the services of a general engineer, who testified that based on the health of the accounting firm and the compensation of Watson’s peers in the industry, his compensation was unreasonably low.
To quantify the appropriate salary, the engineer utilized MAP surveys conducted by the AICPA, which indicated that the average non-owner director of a CPA firm the size of Watson’s would be paid $70,000. The engineer then grossed up this salary by 33% to account for Watson’s stake as a shareholder,[ii] resulting in “reasonable” compensation of $93,000 for each of 2002 and 2003.
The District Court agreed, citing Watson’s experience, expertise, and time devoted to his role as one of the primary earners at a well-established firm.
Eighth Circuit Decision
Today, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the holding of the district court. In reaching its decision, the court concluded that the characterization of funds distributed by an S corporation to its shareholder-employees turns on the analysis of whether the payments were made as compensation for services, not on the intent of the S corporation in making the payments. [iii]
The Eighth Circuit did briefly address Watson’s argument that his reasonable compensation should be capped at the revenue he personally generated for the CPA firm, less his allocable expenses. While the court admitted that evidence of shareholder billings may be probative on the issue of compensation, the Eight Circuit ultimately refrained from adjusting the previous calculation of Watson’s reasonable compensation performed by the IRS.
What Can We Learn?
For tax advisers, the Eighth Circuit’s decision should reinforce the lessons taken home from the original Watson decision. The IRS is taking a formal, quantitative approach towards determining reasonable compensation, so to adequately advise our clients, we must be prepared to do the same thing.
At a minimum, in setting the compensation of our S corporation shareholder-employee clients, we must consider the following (note, all of these considerations are discussed in much greater detail in this PDF: Tax Adviser – S Corporation Shareholder-Employee Reasonable Compensation):
1. Nature of the S Corporation’s Business. It is no coincidence that the majority of reasonable compensation cases involve a professional services corporation, such as law, accounting, and consulting firms. It is the view of the IRS that in these businesses, profits are generated primarily by the personal efforts of the employees, and as a result, a significant portion of the profits should be paid out in compensation rather than distributions.
2. Employee Qualifications, Training and Experience, Duties and Responsibilities, and Time and Effort Devoted to Business. A full understanding of the nature, extent, and scope of the shareholder-employee’s services is essential in determining reasonable compensation. The greater the experience, responsibilities and effort of the shareholder-employee, the larger the salary that will be required.
3. Compensation Compared to That of Non-shareholder Employees or Amounts Paid in Prior Years. Here, common sense rules the day. In Watson, a CPA with significant experience and expertise was paid a smaller salary than recent college graduates. Clearly, this is not advisable.
4. What Comparable Businesses Pay for Similar Services. Tax advisors should review basic benchmarking tools such as monster.com, salary.com, Robert Half, and Bureau of Labor Statistics wage data to determine the relative reasonableness of the shareholder-employee’s compensation when compared to industry norms.
5. Compensation as a Percentage of Corporate Sales or Profits. Tax advisors should utilize industry specific publications such as the MAP to determine the overall profitability of the corporation and the shareholder-employee’s compensation as a percentage of sales or profits. Whenever possible, comparisons should be made to similarly sized companies within the same geographic region. If the resulting ratios indicate that the S corporation is more profitable than its peers but paying less salary to the shareholder-employee, tax advisors should determine if there are any differentiating factors that would justify this lower salary, such as the shareholder’s reduced role or the corporation’s need to retain capital for expansion. If these factors are not present, an increase in compensation to the industry and geographic norm provided for in the publications is likely necessary.
6. Compensation Compared With Distributions. While large distributions coupled with a small salary may increase the likelihood of IRS scrutiny, there is no requirement that all profits be paid out as compensation. Though the District court in Watson recharacterized significant distributions as salary, it permitted Watson to withdraw significant distributions in both 2002 and 2003. Perhaps the court was content to recharacterize just enough distributions to ensure that Watson’s compensation exceeded the Social Security wage base in place for the years at issue.[iv] In doing so, the payroll tax savings on Watson’s remaining distributions amounted only to the 2.9% Medicare tax.
 See Joseph M. Grey.
[i] See Rev. Rul. 59-221.
[ii] The MAP revealed that in general, shareholders billed at a rate 33% higher than non-owner directors.
[iii] Watson tried to argue that it was the intent of the S corporation to pay him only $24,000 for his services, with the remaining cash to be distributed based on the CPA firm’s success, a fact both courts found highly implausible given Watson’s experience and expertise.
[iv] $84,900 in 2002 and $87,000 in 2003.
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