Refusal to Allow Closing Agreements on FICA Timing May Lead to Challenge

In an IRS Chief Counsel Advice Memorandum released on January 13, the IRS concluded that it should not enter into closing agreements with employers who failed to subject amounts of nonqualified deferred compensation to FICA taxes under the special timing rule in Section 3121(v)(2)(A).  In the past, some employers have been able to obtain a closing agreement in such circumstances.  In the CCA, the IRS concludes that, because the regulations apply the general timing rule in such situations, closing agreements that would allow the avoidance of the harsh result prescribed by the regulations are inappropriate.

The unwillingness of the IRS to issue closing agreements on the issue going forward may bring to a head arguments that the IRS’s regulations under Section 3121(v)(2) are not well supported by the language of the statute.  Under the statute, an amount deferred under a “nonqualified deferred compensation plan” is required to be “taken into account” as wages for FICA tax purposes when the services creating the right to that amount are performed, or, if later, the date on which the right to that amount is no longer subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture.  Under the “nonduplication rule,” an amount taken into account as wages under this mandatory timing rule (and any income attributable to such amount) are not treated as wages at any later time.  In other words, deferrals under a nonqualified deferred compensation plan and the related earnings are subjected to FICA taxation only once—at the time mandated by Section 3121(v)(2)(A).

Under the Treasury Regulations, the IRS goes a step further and creates out of whole cloth a second time for including in wages amounts deferred under a nonqualified deferred compensation plan—the time that the deferred amount and earnings would have been taken into account as wages under Section 3121(a) but for the application of Section 3121(v)(2).  The IRS’s regulatory approach is arguably contrary to the statutory language, which does not include a “backup” timing rule but instead provides the sole and exclusive rule regarding the time at which such amounts are wages as a matter of statutory law. There is no other Code provision that would override the clear and unambiguous mandate of Section 3121(v)(2)(A) to require, or event permit, amounts deferred under nonqualified deferred compensation plans to be treated as FICA wages in a later year.

In the absence of an explicit statutory command that would require the later inclusion in wages of deferred amounts that were not properly subjected to FICA taxation, the approach taken by Treasury and the IRS in the regulations may be vulnerable to attack.  With the IRS now refusing to enter into closing agreements on the issue, a cornered taxpayer might seek to do just that.

IRS Issues Regulations Relating to Employees of Disregarded Entities

Yesterday, Treasury and the IRS released final and temporary regulations under Section 7701 meant to clarify issues related to the employment of owners of disregarded entities.  In 2009, the IRS issues regulations that required disregarded entities be treated as a corporation for purposes of employment taxes including federal income tax withholding and Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) taxes for Social Security and Medicare.  The regulations provided that a disregarded entity was disregarded, however, for purposes of self-employment taxes and included an example that demonstrated the application of the rule to an individual who was the single owner of a disregarded entity.  In the example, the disregarded entity is treated as the employee of its employees but the owner remains subject to self-employment tax on the disregarded entity’s activities.  In other words, the owner is not treated as an employee.

Rev. Rul. 69-184 provides that partners are not employees of the partnership for purposes of FICA taxes, Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) tax, and federal income tax withholding.  This is true even if the partner would qualify as an employee under the common law test.  This made it difficult—if not impossible—for partnerships to allow employees to participate in the business with equity ownership such as options even if the employee owned only a very small portion of the partnership.  The 2009 regulations raised questions, however, provided some hope that a disregarded entity whose sole owner was a partnership could be used to as the employer of the partnership’s partners. Doing so would have allowed partners in the partnership to be treated as employees of the disregarded entity and participate in tax-favored employee benefit plans, such as cafeteria plans.  The final and temporary regulations clarify that that an individual who owns and portion of a partnership may not be treated as an employee of the partnership or of a disregarded entity owned by the partnership.

As a result, payments made to partners should not be reported on Form W-2, but should be reported on Schedule K-1.  Such payments are not subject to federal income tax withholding or FICA taxes, but will be subject to self-employment taxes when the partner files his or her individual income tax return.  In addition, if partners are currently participating in a disregarded entity’s employee benefit plans, such as a health plan or cafeteria plan, the plan has until the later of August 1, 2016, or the first day of the latest-starting plan year following May 4, 2016.