Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Is That Reasonable, Part II

I previously commented on a reasonable compensation/disguised dividend case out of the First Circuit. I have also commented previously (here and here) on the issue of the underpayment of or attempts to recharacterize compensation in order to reduce FICA taxes. A new Fifth Circuit case, Brewer Quality Homes, Inc. v. Commissioner, shows that neither taxpayers nor the Service have determined which side their bread should be buttered on. The Fifth Ciruit's unpublished opinion throws little light on the tension inherent in the positions variously taken by taxpayers and the IRS with respect to these two issues.

Brewer Homes was a retail seller of mobile homes. It was a C corporation owned by a married couple, Jack and Mary Brewer. From the early '70's to the mid-90's, the company provided its owners with a comfortable living. However, in the mid-90's its business really took off. It had upwards of 22 employees and was able to pay Jack Brewer $762,186 in salary and bonuses 1995 and $863,559 in 1996. After an audit (and apparently some negotiation), the IRS determined that reasonable compensation for Mr. Brewer was $604,117 for 1995 and $485,966 for 1996. The remainder of the compensation in those years was deemed to not be a deductible expense, but, instead, a dividend to the Brewers.

The Court applied analysed the case using the following nine factors:
  1. The shareholder/taxpayer's qualifications;
  2. The nature, extent, and scope of the shareholder/taxpayer's work;
  3. The size and complexity of the corporation;
  4. The comparison of the shareholder/taxpayer's salary with the gross and net income of the corporation;
  5. Prevailing economic conditions;
  6. A comparison of the purported salary paid with other distributions to shareholders;
  7. Compensation for comparable positions in comparable concerns;
  8. The salary policy of the corporation with respect to other employees; and
  9. The amount paid to the shareholder/taxpayer in previous years.
To some degree, this case will give succor to those attempting to minimize compensation in order to maximize FICA avoidance. After all, tax advisors of an ah, certain age, are comfortable with the various tests applied in reasonable compensation cases. However, a review of the cases recasting dividends as wage income for FICA purposes share certain other characteristics that one should pay attention to:
  1. Is the shareholder the principal provider of compensable labor? Thus, if we are dealing with a professional practice where the income of the business is virtually exclusively driven by the professional services rendered by shareholder/owner, there is likely to be a finding that virtually all of the income is subject to FICA. That might not be the case, for example, if the service business is pyramidal, such as in an accounting firm with a large number of junior accountants who generate profit.

  2. Is there a significant capital component to the business? For instance, a veterinary surgeon may have far less capital invested in equipment than, say, a radiologist. It might be relatively simple to carve out some income of the business as being a return on capital and thus free from recharacterization as compensation subject to FICA. It is worthy of some note that in the First Circuit reasonable compensation case that I commented on previously, that Court rejected the use of a "return on capital" analysis.
Sooner or later, some court or the Service should attempt to harmonize the treatment of what is, to a greater or lesser extent, two sides of the same coin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree totally. Until there is a redesign of the current system, injustice in the American tax system will on become greater. It is our duty as citizens and attorneys to keep a watchful eye on the system at large.


Thank you, Dan Morgan
Tax Attorney Assistant