TRUMPWATCH 2017: We are the 15%

Posted by David Roer, CPA

There’s been an abundance of 2016 headlines you’ve no doubt heard on loop this year and are probably sick of listening to – Brexit! Zika! ISIS! The election! Star Wars!

One headline that we at REM Cycle can’t get enough of is the Trump Tax proposal. Last month, we broke down some of the key talking points within President-Elect Trump’s proposal. Since this tax proposal seems like one of the more likely policies to be enacted within Trump’s first year of presidency, we felt it important to offer a continued look, providing updates throughout the coming months as news develops in a recurring feature aptly named “TrumpWatch 2017.”

Our first TrumpWatch tackles the newly proposed corporate tax rate.                        

As you know, President-Elect Trump is proposing a significant decrease in individual rates (reduction to three rates of 12%, 25%, and 33%) as well as the corporate tax rate: a reduction from 35% to 15%. This is a substantial tax cut for C Corporations, who already have the burden of double taxation (in the form of taxation at the C Corporation level, as well as dividend taxation to the individual shareholder). This corporate reduction proposal has mass implications.

“But I don’t have a C Corporation! How could this possibly affect me?”

It may affect you more than you think. Trump’s proposal would allow pass-through entities (such as S Corporations and Partnerships) to elect to have their pass-through income taxed at the same 15%.

Under current law, pass-through entities pay no corporate-level tax, but report all their pass-through income/loss to the individual at their respective individual rate, which is a current top rate of 39.6%. Even with the potential new Trump individual rates, this means that most individuals from small businesses and closely-held corporations would be able to reduce their tax rate by 18% (i.e., top individual rate of 33% compared to 15% pass-through income rate).

The ramifications of this potential reduction in pass-through income are provocative, to say the least.

We may see an uptick in individuals seeking to establish themselves as independent contractors: by becoming a contractor (i.e. a non-salaried individual), an individual could create their own pass-through entity, receive payment in the form of 1099s instead of a W-2, and as such, elect to have the pass-through income be taxed at the 15% potential rate. The Department of Labor already keeps a watchful eye on ensuring that businesses classify employees correctly – in light of this situation, that eye will be even more watchful.

It’s important to remember that partnership income would still be subject to self-employment tax, and S-Corporations would still have a requirement to pay shareholders their respective reasonable compensation.

This leads to another potential ramification: an increase in IRS scrutiny of reasonable compensation. S-Corporations have a requirement to pay “reasonable compensation” to a shareholder-employee in return for services that said employee provides to the business (e.g., the employee-shareholder will receive a K-1 with all pass-through income/loss, as well as a W-2 reflecting reasonable compensation).

Due to its vagueness, the term “reasonable compensation” has brought on ample amounts of court cases, all attempting to add clarity to the definition of “reasonable” (as a general rule, each case must be looked at independently on a facts-and-circumstance basis).

Be cautious. While this 15% seems enticing, it may not always be the right tax strategy to go with. If the 15% proposal for pass-through is an election by the entity (which, although still unclear in the proposal, it appears to be), it may be in the individual’s best interest to not elect: for instance, in the case of substantial (and deductible) losses, which the individual could offset against other forms of ordinary income (essentially, utilize pass-through losses at a potential max 33% individual rate).

As a similar caveat to our prior Trump blog post, it’s yet to be seen whether any or all of the proposals will become enacted. While there’s still speculation regarding the Trump tax proposal (as well as the above 15% pass-through concept), the best we as practitioners and taxpayers can do is stay up to date!

Stay tuned to the REM Cycle for further TrumpWatch updates.