Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari to a tax case on an issue of first impression from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit — David E. Watson P.C. v. U.S., 668 F.3d 1008 (8th Cir., 2012).
You may remember Watson from our previous discussion here, or from this brilliantly written article in the Tax Adviser. Either way, Watson directly impacts tax advisors as it provides a long-awaited roadmap for quantifying a “reasonable compensation” amount for shareholder/employees in personal service S corporations.
In late 2010, an Iowa district court held that David Watson, a partner with a CPA firm who paid himself only $24,000 in annual salary while taking out over $200,000 in annual distributions, had avoided payroll taxes by failing to pay himself reasonable compensation. Because Watson actually reported some compensation, however, the court was facing an issue of first impression: determining 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.
In setting Watson’s salary, the IRS engaged the services of a general engineer, who first sought to determine the health of Watson’s CPA firm. By analyzing financial ratios published by the Risk Management Association — particularly profits/sales and compensation/sales — the engineer found that Watson’s firm was very healthy, and that compared to similarly healthy firms, Watson’s compensation was unreasonably low.
The court then looked internally at Watson’s firm, noting that Watson was paid less than those subordinate to him. In fact, Watson’s salary was less than what the firm was paying recent college graduates.
Finally, 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, 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.
In February 2012, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision. Watson appealed once more to the Supreme Court, but saw that dream die yesterday.
With Watson apparently in the books as concluded tax law, now is an appropriate time to remind ourselves what we can take away from this important decision:
What Can We Learn?
Above all else, Watson established that 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:
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. In doing so, the payroll tax savings on Watson’s remaining distributions amounted only to the 2.9% Medicare tax.