Impact of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: Part V – Certain Changes Affecting Cross-Border Withholding and Sourcing

Thursday, November 2, the House Ways and Means Committee released the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1) (the “Bill”), a bill that, if enacted, would represent the most substantial overhaul of the U.S. tax code in decades.  We are releasing a series of posts to highlight the provisions of the Bill affecting the topics pertinent to our readers, where each post will cover a different area of importance.  Part I of this series covered potential changes to employer-provided benefits, Part II addressed entertainment expenses and other fringe benefits, Part III discussed changes to employee retirement plans, and Part IV covered changes to the Code section 162(m) deduction limitation for executive compensation.  In this Part V, we will discuss the Bill’s potential impact on two cross-border tax issues.

Reduced FIRPTA Withholding Rates.  Under the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act of 1980 (FIRPTA), gain or loss on the disposition of U.S. real property interests by a nonresident alien individual or foreign corporation is subject to U.S. income tax as though the taxpayer were engaged in a trade or business in the United State and such gain or loss were effectively connected with such trade or business.  Section 1445 applies a withholding mechanism to ensure the payment of any tax due.  When a domestic partnership, trust, or estate disposes of a U.S. real property interest, section 1445 requires that it (or the trustee or executor, in the case of a trust or estate, respectively) withhold 35 percent of the gain realized that is allocable to a foreign person (or allocable to a portion of a trust treated as owned by a foreign person).  Similarly, when a foreign corporation distributes a U.S. real property interest to its shareholders, it must withhold at a rate of 35 percent.  The same withholding rate applies to distributions that are treated as gains or losses from the disposition of a U.S. real property interest allocable to foreign persons from certain domestic entities (such as real estate investment trusts and registered investment companies that would be considered U.S. real property holding corporations if their shares were not publicly traded).  Section 3001 of the Bill, which reduces corporate tax rates in general, includes a corresponding reduction of the FIRPTA tax withholding rate, modifying paragraphs 1445(e)(1), 1445(e)(2), and 1445(e)(6) to require withholding at a 20 percent rate.  The reductions would take effect for tax years beginning after 2017.

Modification to Sourcing Rule for Sales of Inventory Property.  Currently, up to 50 percent of income from the sale of inventory property produced entirely within the United States and sold outside the United States (or vice-versa) can be treated as foreign-source income for purposes of calculating foreign tax credits.  Section 4102 of the Bill would require sales of inventory property to be sourced solely based on the location of production activity with respect to the inventory.  This change would be effective for tax years beginning after 2017.

Poor Design and Poor Defense Sink Employee Discount Plan

A recent IRS Field Attorney Advice (FAA) memorandum highlights the risk of poorly designed employee discount plans.  In FAA 20171202F, the IRS Office of Chief Counsel determined that an employer was liable for failing to pay and withhold employment taxes on employee discounts provided under an employee discount plan that failed to satisfy the requirements for qualified employee discounts under Code section 132(c).  The FAA also suggests that had the employer either kept or provided better records of the prices at which it provided services to select groups of customers, the result may have been different.  In the FAA, the IRS applied the fringe benefit exclusion for qualified employee discounts to an employer whose business information was largely redacted.  Under the employee discount program considered, an employee and a set number of participants designated by each employee (including the employee’s family members and friends) were eligible for discounts on certain services provided by the employer.  The Treasury Regulations under section 132(c) permit employers to offer employees and their spouses and dependent children non-taxable discounts of 20 percent on services sold to customers.

The employer argued that, although the discounts provided under the program exceeded the 20 percent limit applicable to discounted services when compared to published rates, they were in most cases less than the discount rates the employer offered to its corporate customers and members of certain programs.   The Treasury Regulations provide that an employee discount is measured against the price at which goods or services are sold to the employer’s customers.  However, if a company sells a significant portion of its goods or services at a discount to discrete customers or consumer groups—at least 35 percent—the discounted price is used to determine the amount of the employee discount.  Despite the employer’s argument that the determination of the amount of the employee discounts should not be based on the published rates, the IRS refused to apply this special discount rule for lack of adequate substantiation.  Although the employer provided the IRS with bar graphs showing the discounts it gave to various customers, the employer did not substantiate the information on the graphs or provide the IRS with evidence showing what percentage of its total sales were made from each of the customers allegedly receiving discounted rates.  Had the employer shown that it sold at least 35 percent of its services at a discount, then at least some, if not most of the employee discounts in excess of the published rates less 20 percent, may not have been taxable.

Having determined that the discounts offered exceeded the 20 percent limit applicable to services, the IRS ruled that the employer must withhold and remit employment taxes on any employee discount to the extent it exceeded 20 percent of the published rate.  Correspondingly, the employer must report the taxable amount as additional wages on the employee’s Form W-2.  Perhaps even more costly for the employer, the IRS determined that the entire value of the discount (and not just the amount in excess of 20 percent) provided to someone designated by an employee constitutes taxable wages paid to the employee unless the person is the employee’s spouse or dependent child.  Accordingly, if an employee designates a friend under the program who uses the discount, the entire discount must be included in the employee’s wages and subjected to appropriate payroll taxation.

Offering employee discounts on property and services sold to customers can make for a valuable employee reward program, but the technical requirements to avoid tax consequences for these programs can be overlooked.  The FAA’s analysis is consistent with the regulations under Code sections 61 and 132, and should not be surprising to anyone familiar with the rules.  Given the recent interest in employee discount programs by IRS examiners conducting employment tax examinations, it would be prudent for employers to review their employee discount programs and consider whether the programs are properly designed to avoid the potentially expensive payroll tax consequences that could be triggered by discounts that do not qualify for the income exclusion under section 132(c).