For (very) closely-held service companies, it is common to “bonus” enough profit to bring taxable income down to zero (or very close). There are two reasons for this:
(1) The company is a personal services company (PSC), meaning that it will face a maximum corporate tax rate on whatever profit is left in the company. This is a tremendous impetus to not leave profit in the company.
(2) There is one owner (or very few owners) and the majority of the money is going to him/her/them anyway.
In many cases the company is also cash-basis taxpayer, and the accountant normally pays very close attention to cash in-and-out during the last few days of the tax year. With electronic bank transfers becoming more commonplace, I have seen carefully-monitored tax planning destabilized by sizeable electronic customer transfers on the last day or two. It happens, as the customer may be doing cash-basis planning themselves, and payment to my client is a tax deduction to them.
There are limitations on how far this can be pushed, though. It is not acceptable to delay depositing customer checks, for example, in order to avoid income recognition. In addition, one has to be careful about writing so many checks that it creates a bank overdraft. A common way to plan around an overdraft is to have a line of credit available. The bank would then sweep funds from the line as necessary to cover any overdraft. One might also run an overdraft if he/she knows that a deposit will arrive early the following month, as that deposit would occur during the float period of any outstanding checks. A business owner might “know” that check is coming because said check is already in the owner’s desk drawer, but we will not speak further of such absurd examples. It is not as though I have ever seen such a thing, of course.
Let’s talk about Vanney Associates, Inc. Robert Vanney is an architect with perilously close to 40 years experience. The firm has about 25 employees, and Robert is the sole shareholder. He is – without question – the key man. His wife, Karen, is a CPA with a retired license, and she takes care of the books and records.
In 2008 Mr. Vanney received $240,000 in monthly payroll. At the end of the year, he determined and paid employee bonuses, taking as a personal bonus whatever was left over. The leftover was $815,000. The withholdings on the leftover were approximately $350,000, leaving approximately $464,000 payable to Mr. Vanney.
Problem: there was only $389 thousand in the bank.
There was enough money to pay the withholding taxes, but there wasn’t enough to also pay Mr. Vanney. What to do? The Vanney’s did not need the money, so they decided not to borrow from the bank. Mr. Vanney instead endorsed the check back to the company, and that was the end of the matter.
But it wasn’t. The IRS looked at the business tax return and decided to disallow the $815,000 bonus and almost $12,000 in related employer payroll taxes.
Why? The government got their taxes, so why should they care?
There is a legal concept when paying with a check. A check is referred to as a “conditional payment,” because writing the check is subject to a condition subsequent. That subsequent condition is the check clearing the bank. We take it for granted, of course, so we overlook that technically there are two steps. When the check clears, the two steps unify and become as one. This is why you can send a check to a charity on December 31 and claim the deduction in the same tax year. There is no chance that the charity is receiving that check and depositing it by December 31. Still, if it clears in the normal course of business, all parties – including the IRS – consider the check as having been written on December 31.
That is not what happened here. The check never cleared the bank.
Which is unfortunate, as the IRS now could argue that the check remained conditional. Being conditional there was never payment in 2008. This was fatal, as Vanney Associates was a cash-basis taxpayer.
And the Court agreed.
Think about this for a moment. The corporation was disallowed a 2008 deduction for the $815,000. Whereas the Court did not address this point, that bonus was included on Mr. Vanney’s 2008 Form W-2. He would have reported that W-2 on his 2008 individual tax return.
There is something seriously wrong with this picture.
I suppose Vanney Associates could amend its 2008 payroll tax returns. It could reverse that bonus, as well as the related withholding taxes. It would get a refund, but it would be amending multiple federal and state (and possibly local) payroll returns.
Mr. Vanney would then amend his personal 2008 tax return.
But that is assuming we are within the statute of limitations to amend all those returns.
When then would Vanney Associates get its $815,000 bonus deduction?
Your first response might be the following year: in 2009. I believe you would be wrong. Why? Because Mr. Vanney did not cash his check in 2009. The check remained a conditional payment in 2009. Same answer for 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. This case was decided September, 2014. Seems to me the first time Mr. Vanney could “cash” his check is this year – 2014.
Let me ask you another question: why didn’t the Court allow the (approximately) $350,000 in withholdings as a tax deduction? That check cashed, right?
I think I know. If the company did not “pay” the $815,000 in 2008, then there is no “bonus” for that withholding to attach to. From a tax perspective, the company overpaid its withholding taxes in 2008. The tax problem is that the overpayment is not a "deduction," as no payroll taxes were actually due. Payroll taxes attach to payroll, and there was no payroll. It was a "prepayment," waiting on Vanney to request a refund.
What is our takeaway?
Over the years I have heard more than one practitioner declare a tax outcome as “making no sense.” An unfortunate consequence is that the practitioner may not pursue a line of reasoning to conclusion. There are reasons for this, of course. First, an accountant has probably been exposed somewhere to generally accepted accounting principles. GAAP is a financial statement concept (think auditors, not tax accountants) and GAAP generally has some symmetry to it. The practitioner forgets that the IRS not bound by GAAP. The purpose of the IRS is to collect and enforce, and it does not consider itself bound by any symmetry should GAAP get in its way. The second is human: we respond to an absurd result by assuming we must have made a mistake in our reasoning. Many times we are right. In Vanney’s case, we were not.
What could Vanney have done?
He could have had a line of credit in place. He could have cashed that check.
BTW I almost invariably recommend my cash-basis clients have a line of credit, even if they have no intention of using it. This costs them money, as the bank may charge a flat fee (say $100 or $250) annually for keeping the line of credit available. In addition, many a bank will require at least one draw over a month-end annually in order to keep the line open. This means there will be some interest expense.
Why do I recommend it? It is cheap insurance against nightmares like this.
About the author
Steven D. Hamilton is a career CPA, with extensive experience involving all aspects of tax practice, including sophisticated income tax planning and handling of tax controversy matters for closely-held businesses and high-income individuals.