Modified Senate Tax Proposal Would Repeal ACA Individual Mandate and Certain Employer Meal Deductions, and Establish Five-Year Deferral Election for Stock Options and RSUs of Privately-Held Corporations

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November 16, 2017

On November 14, the Senate Finance Committee released modifications to its tax reform proposal (discussed here).  The Senate modification contains key changes in the following areas:

  • Health Reform – Repeal the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).
  • Fringe Benefits – (1) Disallow deductions for meals provided for the employer’s convenience that are not occasional overtime meals, and meals provided at an employer-operated eating facility; and (2) expand the income exclusion for length of service awards for public safety volunteers.
  • Private Retirement Benefits – (1) Strike the proposed elimination of catch-up contributions for high-wage employees; (2) extend the rollover time period of certain outstanding plan loans; (3) allow re-contribution of retirement plan distributions due to incorrect IRS levies; and (4) allow qualified distributions for victims of Mississippi River Delta flooding.
  • NQDC and Executive Compensation – (1) Eliminate the repeal of Code section 409A and the new rules for non-qualified deferred compensation (“NQDC”) included in the original tax reform proposal; (2) allow deferral for up to five years for stocks pursuant to exercise of stock options and settlement of restricted stock units (“RSUs”) issued under broad-based plans of privately-held corporations; and (3) provide transition relief for the expanded application of Code section 162(m).
  • Worker Classification and Information Reporting – (1) Eliminate the proposed worker classification safe harbor that would have applied for all purposes of the Code; and (2) eliminate the proposed changes to the reporting thresholds for filing Forms 1099-MISC and Forms 1099-K under Code sections 6041(a), 6041A(a), and 6050W.
  • Employer Tax Credits – Provide employer tax credits in 2018 and 2019 for wages paid to employees on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

We have summarized the key changes in the Senate modification, which generally would be effective after 2017, except as otherwise noted below.

Health Reform

Elimination of Individual Mandate Penalties.  After multiple attempts to repeal and replace the ACA, including the individual and employer mandates (see discussions here), Senate Republicans are proposing to zero out penalties for failure to comply with the ACA’s individual mandate, effective starting in 2019, as part of the tax reform bill.  Incorporating this repeal into the tax reform proposal carries risks and rewards.  Although the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Tax Committee estimated that the repeal would raise $338 million over the next ten years (reducing the budget impact of the reform proposal), the CBO also estimates that the repeal would increase the number of uninsured people by 4 million in 2019 and 13 million in 2027.  This may complicate efforts to pass the tax reform package given the difficulty Republicans had in maintaining a majority during earlier efforts to repeal the ACA.

Information Reporting Implications.  As we have discussed in a previous post, zeroing out the individual mandate penalty would not directly affect the ACA’s information reporting requirements under Code sections 6055 and 6056.  As with earlier ACA repeal efforts, the Senate modification does not eliminate the requirement for providers of minimum essential coverage to report coverage on Form 1095-B (or Form 1095-C) or offers of minimum essential coverage on Form 1095-C despite eliminating the penalty imposed on individuals for failing to maintain coverage.  These forms would still be necessary for the IRS to administer the premium tax credit, which GOP tax reform bills have thus far left intact.

Fringe Benefits

Disallowance of Deduction for Meals Provided for Employer’s Convenience (that are not Occasional Overtime Meals) and Meals Provided at Employer-Operated Eating Facilities.  Under existing law, taxpayers may generally deduct 50 percent of food and beverage expenses associated with operating their trade or business (e.g., meals consumed by employees on work-related travel and meals provided for the employer’s convenience under Code section 119), and fully deduct expenses for meals provided through an employer-operated eating facility that constitute de minimis fringe benefits under Treasury Regulation § 1.132‑7.  The initial Senate proposal would expand this 50-percent limitation to expenses of employer-operated eating facilities as defined under Code section 132(e)(6).  The Senate modification, however, would completely disallow deductions for meals provided for the employer’s convenience under Code section 119 or at an employer-operated eating facility.  Importantly, these changes would not affect the employer’s full deduction (and the employee’s full income exclusion) for occasional overtime meals that constitute de minimis fringe benefits under Treasury Regulation § 1.132‑6(d)(2).  This approach under the Senate modification differs from the House bill, which would not only maintain the full deduction for meals provided at an employer-operated eating facility that is a de minimis fringe benefit, but also remove the 50-percent deduction limitation on meals provided to employees for the employer’s convenience under Code section 119.

Expansion of Exclusion for Length of Service Awards for Public Safety Volunteers.  Under Code section 139B, bona fide volunteers (or their beneficiaries) may exclude “qualified payments,” which include reimbursement of reasonable expenses or other payment, including length of service awards, on account of performing qualified volunteer emergency response services.  The annual exclusion is limited to $30 multiplied by the number of months that the volunteer performs the services during the year.  The Senate modification would increase the exclusion for the aggregate amount of length of service awards to $6,000 in each service year, adjusted for cost of living.  Additionally, length of service awards structured as defined benefit plans would not have to comply with Code section 457, but the annual dollar limit would apply to the actuarial present value of the aggregate amount awards that have accrued under the plan.  This increased exclusion would not apply to other forms of qualified payments, such as reimbursements, which would still be subject to the $30 per service month limitation.

Private Employer Retirement Benefits

Repeal of Proposed Elimination of Catch-up Contributions for High-Wage Employees.  The Senate proposal would have repealed catch-up contributions for employees who receive wages of $500,000 or more for the preceding year.  The Senate modification would eliminate this change.

Extension of Time Period for Rollover of Certain Outstanding Plan Loans.  Under Code section 402(c)(3), a participant whose plan or employment terminates while he or she has an outstanding plan loan balance generally must contribute the loan balance to an individual retirement account (IRA) within 60 days of receiving an offset distribution.  Otherwise, the loan is treated as an impermissible early withdrawal and is subject to the 10‑percent early withdrawal penalty.  Like the House bill, the Senate modification would relax these rules by allowing these employees until the due date for their individual tax return to contribute the outstanding loan balance to an IRA.  The 10‑percent penalty would only apply after that date.

Re‑Contribution of Incorrect IRS Levies.  Under existing law, amounts withdrawn from a qualified retirement plan on account of an IRS levy is includible in income in the same manner as other distributions, but the 10-percent early withdrawal penalty would not apply.  While the IRS may return these amounts pursuant to Code section 6343 if the levy was wrongful or not compliant with IRS administrative procedures, existing law does not allow an individual to re‑contribute these amounts.  The Senate modification would allow an individual to re‑contribute such amounts and any applicable interest (in the case of wrongful levies, but not levies in violation of IRS administrative procedures), without regard to the normally applicable limits on plan contributions and rollovers.  The amounts (and applicable interest) may also be contributed to a different IRA or plan to which a rollover would be permitted.

Qualified Mississippi River Delta Flooding Distribution.  Under the Senate modification, the early withdrawal tax would not apply to a distribution of up to $100,000 to an individual whose place of abode on August 11, 2016, was located in the Mississippi River Delta area, and who suffered economic loss due to the storm and flooding that occurred in the area during August 2016.  The distribution must be made on or after August 11, 2016, and before January 1, 2018, to be exempt from the early withdrawal tax.  Additionally, any distribution required to be included in income as a result of this special distribution rule is included in income ratably over a three-year period, beginning with the year of distribution.  During this three-year period, amounts received may be re‑contributed to the plan and treated as a rollover, thus allowing the individual to file an amended return.  (For more information regarding special tax relief for victims of natural disasters, see our discussions of: (1) leave-based donation programs, leave-sharing programs, and relaxed plan loans and hardship withdrawal rules for victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma; and (2) qualified disaster relief payments under Code section 139.)

NQDC and Executive Compensation

Repeal of Provisions Changing Taxation of Non-qualified Deferred Compensation.  As we discussed in our prior post, the Senate proposal would have enacted a new Code section 409B and repealed the current section 409A, and significantly restricted the conditions that qualify as a substantial risk of forfeiture.  As a result, NQDC would have become taxable at the time that it was no longer subject to future performance of substantial services.  The Senate modification announced on November 13 would eliminate that change, meaning that current section 409A would continue to apply going forward.

Five-Year Stock Deferral for Stock Options and RSUs Issued under Broad-Based Plans of Privately-Held Corporations.  Currently, under Code section 83, the value of shares covered by options without a readily-ascertainable fair market value is includable in income at the time of exercise.  Additionally, they are exempt from taxation under section 409A because they are generally not considered deferred compensation when the exercise price equals or exceeds the fair market value of the underlying stock at the time of grant.  Like the House bill, the Senate modification would allow “qualified employees” to elect to defer for up to five years federal income taxation related to qualified stock.  “Qualified stock” means the stock of a privately-held corporation received upon exercise of a stock option or settlement of a RSU that was transferred in connection with the performance of services.  To be effective, an inclusion deferral election must be made no later than 30 days after the first time the employee’s rights in the stock are substantially vested or transferrable.  The inclusion deferral election would also be subject to the following rules:

Broad-Based Plans.  The election would only apply to a privately-held corporation that offers a written plan under which, in the calendar year, not less than 80 percent of all employees who provide services to the corporation in the United States are granted stock options or RSUs with the “same rights and privileges” to receive the corporation’s stock.  The determination of rights and privileges would be made under rules similar to existing rules under Code section 423(b)(5) (employee stock purchase plans).  This cross reference implies that the amount of the stock which may be purchased by the employee under the stock option or RSU may bear a uniform relationship to the employee’s total or regular compensation, provided that the number of shares available to each employee is more than a de minimis amount.

Stock Repurchase Limitations and Reporting.  An inclusion deferral election is not available if, in the preceding year, the corporation purchased any of its outstanding stock, unless at least 25 percent of the total dollar amount of the stock purchased is qualified stock subject to the election (“deferral stock”).  Generally, in applying this rule, an individual’s deferral stock to which the proposed election has been in effect for the longest period must be counted first.  A corporation that has deferral stock outstanding in the beginning of any calendar year and that purchases any of its outstanding stock during the year must report on its income tax return for that year the total value of the outstanding stock purchased during that year and other information as the IRS may require.

Deferral Period and Income Inclusion.  A stock to which an inclusion deferral election applies would be includable in income on the earliest of: (i) the first date the stock becomes transferrable; (ii) the date the recipient first becomes an excluded employee (generally, a 1% owner, an officer, or a highly-compensated employee); (iii) the first date any stock of the corporation becomes readily tradeable on an established securities market; (iv) five years after the earlier of the date the recipient’s rights are not transferable or are not subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture; or (v) the date on which the employee revokes his or her election (the “deferral period”).  The amount to be included in income following the deferral period, however, would be determined based on the value of the stock upon substantial vesting, regardless of whether the stock value has declined during the deferral period.

Coordination with Statutory Stock Option Rules.  An inclusion deferral election would be available with respect to statutory stock options.  If an election is made, these options would no longer be treated as statutory stock options or subject to Code sections 422 or 423.

Coordination with NQDC Regime and 83(b).  The inclusion deferral election would not apply to income with respect to unvested stock that is includible in income as a result of an election under section 83(b), which permits unvested property to be includable in income in the year of transfer.  The Senate modification also clarifies that, apart from the proposed change, section 83 (including 83(b)) shall not apply to RSUs.

Employee Notice.  A corporation that transfers qualified stock to a qualified employee must provide notice to the employee at the time (or a reasonable period before) the employee’s right to the stock is substantially vested (and income attributable to the stock would first be includible absent an inclusion deferral election).  The notice must certify that the stock is qualified stock and notify the employee that: (1) if eligible, the employee may make an inclusion deferral election; (2) the amount includible in income is determined based on the value of the stock when it substantially vests, and not when the deferral period ends; (3) the taxable amount will be subject to withholding at the end of the deferral period; and (4) the employee has certain responsibilities with respect to required withholding.  The penalty for failing to provide the notice is $100 per failure, capped at $50,000 for all failures during any calendar year.

Form W-2 Withholding and Reporting.  Following the deferral period, the corporation must withhold federal income taxes on the amount required to be included in income at a rate not less than the highest income tax bracket applicable to the individual taxpayer.  The corporation must report on a Form W-2 the amount of income covered by an inclusion deferral election: (1) for the year of deferral; and (2) for the year the income is required to be included in the employee’s income.  In addition, for any calendar year, the corporation must report on Form W-2 the aggregate amount of income covered by inclusion deferral elections, determined as of the close of the calendar year.

Effective Date.  These changes would generally apply to stock attributable to options exercised or RSUs settled after 2017.  Until the IRS issues regulations on the 80-percent and employer notice requirements, a corporation will be treated as complying with these requirements if it complies with a reasonable good faith interpretation of them.  The penalty for failure to provide the employee notice applies after 2017.

Transition Relief for Modified Limitation on Excessive Employee Remuneration.  The Senate proposal would expand the $1 million deduction limitation under Code section 162(m) on compensation a publicly-traded corporation pays to a covered employee, by expanding the definition of a covered employee, eliminating the exceptions for performance-based compensation and commissions, and covering additional types of corporations.  The Senate modification would add a transition rule, such that the proposed changes would not apply to any remuneration under a written binding contract in effect on (and not materially modified after) November 2, 2017, and to which the right of the covered employee was no longer subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture before 2017.

Repeal of Proposed Worker Classification Safe Harbor and Changes to 1099-MISC/1099-K Reporting

The Senate proposal would have added a worker classification safe harbor for all purposes under the Code, to provide more certainty to independent contractors and “gig economy” workers regarding their worker classification.  It also would have changed the reporting thresholds for filing Forms 1099-MISC and Forms 1099-K under Code sections 6041(a), 6041A(a), and 6050W.  The Senate modification would eliminate these changes.

Employer Tax Credits

Employer Tax Credit for Paid FMLA Leave in 2018 and 2019.  To increase access to and promote paid FMLA leave, the Senate modification would allow “eligible employers” to claim a general business credit equal to 12.5 percent of wages paid to a “qualifying employee” while on FMLA leave, plus 0.25 percent of wages (capped at 25 percent) for each percentage point by which the FMLA pay exceeds 50 percent of the employee’s normal pay.  An eligible employer is one that allows all qualifying full-time employees not less than two weeks of annual paid FMLA leave (not counting leave paid by State or local government), and that allows less-than-full-time employees a commensurate amount of leave on a pro rata basis.  A qualifying employee is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act who has been employed by the employer for at least one year, and whose preceding‑year compensation did not exceed 60 percent of the compensation threshold for highly compensated employees ($120,000 for 2017).  The Senate modification would establish the credit as a pilot program in 2018 and 2019, and instruct the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the credit’s effectiveness for increasing access to and promoting paid FMLA leave.