IRS Provides Interim Guidance for Claiming Payroll Tax Credit for Research Activities

The Treasury and the IRS recently released Notice 2017-23 providing interim guidance related to  the payroll tax credit for research expenditures by qualified small businesses under Code § 3111(f).  (See prior coverage.)  Specifically, the notice provides interim guidance on the time and manner of making the payroll tax credit election and claiming the credit, and on the definitions of “qualified small business” and “gross receipts.”  Comments are requested by July 17, 2017.

Code § 41(a) provides a research tax credit against federal income taxes.  Effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2015, Code §§ 41(h) and 3111(f) allow a “qualified small business” to elect to apply a portion of the § 41(a) research credit against the employer portion of the social security tax under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act.  Generally, a corporation, partnership, or individual is a qualified small business if its “gross receipts” are less than $5 million and the entity did not have gross receipts more than 5 years ago.  The election must be made on or before the due date of the tax return for the taxable year (e.g., Form 1065 for a partnership, or Form 1120-S for an S corporation).  The amount elected shall not exceed $250,000, and each quarter, the amount that the employer may claim is capped by the employer portion of the social security tax imposed for that calendar quarter.

The notice provides that, to make a payroll tax credit election, a qualified small business must attach a completed Form 6765 to its timely filed (including extensions) return for the taxable year to which the election applies.  The notice provides interim relief for qualified small businesses that timely filed returns for taxable years on or after December 31, 2015, but failed to make the payroll tax credit election.  In this case, the entity may make the election on an amended return filed on or before December 31, 2017.  To do so, the business must either: (1) indicate on the top of its Form 6765 that the form is “FILED PURSUANT TO NOTICE 2017-23”; or (2) attach a statement to this effect to the Form 6765.

A qualified small business can claim the payroll tax credit on its Form 941 for the first calendar quarter beginning after it makes the election by filing the Form 6765.  Similarly, if the qualified small business files annual employment tax returns, it may claim the credit for the return that includes the first quarter beginning after the date on which the business files the election.  A qualified small business claiming the credit must attach a completed Form 8974 to the employment tax return.  On the Form 8974, the taxpayer filing the employment tax return claiming the credit provides the Employer Identification Number (EIN) used on the Form 6765.

For qualified small businesses filing quarterly employment tax returns, they must use the Form 8974 to apply the social security tax limit to the amount of the payroll tax credit it elected on Form 6765 and to determine the amount of the credit allowed on its quarterly employment tax return.  If the payroll tax credit elected exceeds the employer portion of the social security tax for that quarter, then the excess determined on the Form 8974 is carried over to the succeeding calendar quarter(s), subject to applicable social security tax limitation(s).

The notice also provides guidance for purposes of defining a “qualified small business.”  Specifically, the notice provides that the term “gross receipts” is determined under Code § 448(c)(3) (without regard to Code § 448(c)(3)(A)) and Treas. Reg. § 1.448-1T(f)(2)(iii) and (iv)), rather than Code § 41(c)(7) and Treas. Reg. § 1.41-3(c).  Therefore, gross receipts for purposes of the notice do not, as Treas. Reg. § 1.41- 3(c) does, exclude amounts representing returns or allowances, receipts from the sale or exchange of capital assets under Code § 1221, repayments of loans or similar instruments, returns from a sale or exchange not in the ordinary course of business, and certain other amounts.

Recent FAA Serves as Warning to Employers Using PEOs

A recent Internal Revenue Service Office of Chief Counsel field attorney advice memorandum (FAA 20171201F) sounds a cautionary note for employers making use of a professional employer organization (PEO).  The FAA holds a common law employer ultimately liable for employment taxes owed for workers it leased from the PEO.  Under the terms of the employer’s agreement with the PEO, the PEO was required to deposit employee withholdings with the IRS and pay the employer share of payroll taxes to the IRS.  Alas, that was not what happened.

The taxpayer did not dispute that it had the right to direct and control all aspects of the employment relationship and was thus was the common law employer with respect to the employees, but asserted that it was not liable for the unpaid employment taxes. Under the terms of the contracts between the taxpayer and the PEO, the taxpayer would pay an amount equal to the wages and salaries of the leased employees to the PEO prior to the payroll date, and the PEO would then pay all required employment taxes and file all employment tax returns (Forms 940 and 941) and information returns (Forms W-2) with respect to the employees.

After the PEO failed to pay and deposit the required taxes, the Examination Division of the IRS found the taxpayer liable for the employment tax of those workers, plus interest. The taxpayer appealed, making several arguments against its liability: (i) the PEO was liable for paying over the employment taxes under a state statute; (ii) the PEO was the statutory employer, making it liable for the employment taxes; and (iii) the workers were not employees of the taxpayer under Section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978.

The Office of Chief Counsel first explained that the state law cited by the taxpayer was not relevant because it was superseded by the Internal Revenue Code. The FAA rejects the taxpayer’s second argument because the PEO lacked control over the payment of wages, and thus it was not a statutory employer. The PEO lacked the requisite control because the taxpayer was obligated to make payment sufficient to cover the employees’ pay before the PEO paid the workers.  Finally, the Office of Chief Counsel denied the taxpayer relief under Section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978 because that provision only applies to questions involving employment status or worker classification, neither of which was at issue.  Although the FAA makes clear that the common law employer will be on-the-hook for the unpaid employment taxes, the FAA did indicate that it would be open to allowing an interest-free adjustment because the taxpayer’s reliance on the PEO to fulfill its employment tax obligations constituted an “error” under the interest-free adjustment rules.

The FAA serves as a reminder that the common law employer cannot easily offload its liability for employment taxes by using a contract. Indeed, it remains liable for such taxes and related penalties in the event that the party it has relied on to deposit them fails to do so timely.  Employers who choose to make use of a PEO should carefully monitor the PEO’s compliance with the payroll tax rules to ensure that it does not end up in this taxpayer’s position.  Alternatively, employers should consider whether to use a certified PEO under the new regime established by Congress (earlier coverage  available here and here).  When using a certified PEO, the common law employer can successfully shift its liability to the PEO and is not liable if the PEO fails to comply with the payroll tax requirements of the Code.

IRS Releases New Form on Which Small Businesses Should Claim Payroll Tax Credit for R&D Expenditures

The IRS released draft Form 8974, Qualified Small Business Payroll Tax Credit for Increasing Research Activities, which qualified small business (i.e., start-up businesses) will use to claim the new payroll tax credit available to start-up businesses for qualified research and development (R&D) expenses up to $250,000.  As we explained in a prior post, the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (PATH Act) allowed start-up businesses to take advantage of the R&D tax credit by allowing them to offset the employer portion of the Social Security tax—the credit was previously only available to companies that could offset such expenditures against taxable income.  Also covered in that post were modifications to two existing forms to accommodate the reporting of the expanded R&D tax credit: Form 6765, Credit for Increasing Research Activities, and Form 941, Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return.

The new form allows qualified small businesses to calculate the amount of the qualified small business payroll tax credit for the current quarter. Taxpayers will file Form 8974 quarterly by attaching it to Form 941.  Form 8974 calculates the amount of payroll tax credit available to the taxpayer based on Line 44 of the prior tax year’s Form 6765, and the amount of social security taxes reported for the quarter, which is pulled from Column 2 of Lines 5a and 5b of the Form 941 on which the credit is applied.  The amount reported on Line 12 of Form 8974 is the payroll tax credit that qualified small businesses should report on Line 11 of the Form 941 (generally, the amount of the total credit allowable based on the prior year’s Form 6765 or 50% of the reported Social Security tax reported on the Form 941 for the current quarter).

IRS Releases Drafts of Forms 941 and 6765 to Enable R&D Payroll Tax Credit Under Section 3111(f)

The IRS released drafts of Form 941 and Form 6765 to facilitate a new payroll tax credit intended to allow start-up businesses to take advantage of the research and development (R&D) credit in Section 41 of the Internal Revenue Code.  In the past, start-up businesses took issue with the R&D tax credit because the credit was an income tax credit.  Because start-up businesses may not have taxable income for several years, they were not able to take advantage of the credit.

The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (PATH Act) expanded the R&D credit by adding new Sections 41(h) and 3111(f) to the Code.  Those sections allow “qualified small businesses” to elect to claim the credit (up to a maximum of $250,000) as a payroll tax credit. Those employers may elect to use the credit to offset the employer portion of Social Security tax.  It may not be used to reduce the amount of Social Security tax withheld from employees’ wages, nor may it be used to offset the employer or employee share of Medicare tax.  For purposes of the credit, a “qualified small business” is an employer with gross receipts of less than $5 million in the current taxable year and no more than five taxable years with gross receipts.  Qualified small businesses may claim the R&D payroll tax credit in tax years beginning after December 31, 2015.

The IRS added two lines to Form 941 (Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return). Qualified small businesses will report the amount of the credit on Line 11 and report the total applicable taxes after adjustments and credits on Line 12.  In addition, qualified small businesses will elect to take a portion of the R&D credit as a payroll tax credit by completing new Section D on Form 6765 (Credit for Increasing Research Activities).  Comments on the forms can be submitted on the IRS web site.

The IRS subsequently released a draft Form 8974 that is used to calculate the payroll tax credit.