Distributions in Excess of Shareholder Basis
By Jason Watson, CPA
Posted February 28, 2020
We broached this little devil in a previous section, but we want to expand on it. If you buy Google stock for $100 and later sell it for $150, you have a $50 gain. Easy. The first $100 represents a return of your capital and the next $50 represents your gain. Done. How does this to relate to S corporations?
If you inject $5,000 into your business, your business earns $100,000 and your business checking account has $105,000, you have $105,000 in shareholder basis. You can take all $105,000 out without trouble.
There are at least three scenarios where this breaks down, and we’ll review each one.
This one bites people all the time, and bites hard! Same situation above. $100,000 in net business profits but you also financed a brand new Ford F150 pickup truck for $60,000, and used 100% bonus depreciation to deduct it (for the 2020 tax year). Therefore, you have $105,000 in the business checking account and $40,000 in net business profits (you had $100,000 but deducted a $60,000 truck).
Your shareholder basis is $5,000 (original injection of cash) plus $40,000 in profits, or $45,000. If you take out $100,000 as a shareholder distribution, you have $55,000 of the $100,000 exceeding your shareholder basis and that portion will be taxed as a capital gain on your individual tax return. Yuck!
How do you fix this? Easy. Don’t use bonus depreciation on the new truck. Rather, use another depreciation method that spreads the deduction across several tax years. Sure, you will pay more income taxes in the year of purchase, but you won’t have the capital gain on the excess distributions. And, you have a nice depreciation deduction in the future to offset hopefully increasing incomes (and associated tax rates).
But wait! There’s more. There might actually be a tax planning trick to welcome this capital gain on distributions in excess of shareholder basis. Huh? Well, the capital gain is considered long-term and as such has favorable tax rates versus ordinary income tax rates. In other words, if you are going to pay taxes on the income your business earns anyway, do you want to do it at ordinary income tax rates or capital gain tax rates? We are saying this in the abstract, but there could be tax planning opportunities when allowing this capital gain to occur.
This one can bite too! WCG has a client who is a very successful Amazon reseller. To add to the excitement, Amazon offered a low-cost $250,000 loan to the business presumably with the hopes that the business would buy more stuff to sell on Amazon. The business didn’t. The sole shareholder took the loan proceeds plus some extra cash out of the business as a shareholder distribution. Let’s breakdown what happened using our basic example above.
You inject $5,000 into your business and the business earned $100,000 in net business profits. The business also took on a $250,000 Amazon loan and received cash. Therefore, your business checking account reads $355,000 but your shareholder basis is only $105,000. Another yuck!
When cash loans like above happen, we advise the client to return the cash to the business.
Recall that a business loan made directly to an S corporation from an external lender does not create shareholder basis even if the shareholder personally guarantees the loan. This is contrary to a partnership where each partner personally guarantees the loan, and adds to his or her partner basis. However, a shareholder who lends money directly to the S corporation does add to his or her basis (we typically suggest not making this is a loan, but rather a capital injection from the shareholder).
Along the same lines of loans is payables. Let’s say you record a $25,000 employer 401k match expense on December 31, but you haven’t sent the check yet. This would be recorded as a debit to 401k Matching as an expense and a credit to a 401k Payable account. Additionally, this payable isn’t due until March 15 the following year, so you have some extra cash in your business checking account that is earmarked for the 401k payment. But it’s Christmas, and baby needs new shoes, so you pull this $25,000 as a shareholder distribution knowing that you’ll earn enough between January 1 and March 15 to make the payment.
This distribution could exceed your shareholder basis. How? You reduced the amount of business profits by recording the 401k match expense, but didn’t use cash to do so. You used a payable or an IOU if you will, freeing up some cash albeit temporarily. This cash-less reduction of business profits combined with a distribution can be bad.
What can be done here? Wait until January 1 to take the money out rather than December 31. Show the cash on the books for the ending cash number which is a part of your business entity tax return, wait 24 hours, and then do the money-grab.
Bad Basis Data
Most tax software will maintain shareholder basis using worksheets and other supporting documentation within the tax return. This information is typically not filed with the IRS or state, but it is a part of the tax return documents. Cool, right? If you switch tax professionals, your new person can easily take this data and enter it into the tax software to preserve your shareholder basis data. More cool.
This sounds great until it isn’t. Let’s say you’ve been in business for 20 years, and for some reason or another you’ve had four different tax professionals over the years. What if in year 4, a tax professional messed something up which caused your shareholder basis to get slightly out of whack; nothing huge, but certainly wrong. Your next tax professional simply took last year’s worksheets… did a quick sanity check… and plopped a number in as your shareholder basis that was too low. Ten years later, you are pulling some money out as a distribution and get hit with long-term capital gains.
Everyone is scratching their chin asking What happened here?
What makes matters worse is that a lazy tax professional who doesn’t want to dig into the numbers or have an awkward conversation with the business owner might create a shareholder loan to avoid the capital gain conundrum. In other words, he or she will take the portion of the shareholder distribution that exceeds the basis, and call it a loan to the shareholder. Great, now we’ve taken a dumpster fire and threw a 55-gallon drum of gas on it. The IRS cannot stand shareholder loans since they are usually disguised distributions.
What can be done? We usually advise pumping the brakes on the current year’s tax return and re-building the shareholder basis data from business inception. WCG just recently did this for a client who owned a bunch of Arby’s over several years; the shareholder basis on the worksheet from the previous CPA was understated by over $240,000. Yeah, a big number.
The lesson here is to be careful on seeing a bunch of cash and thinking you can do a money-grab without pain.
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