Designing a Tax-Wise Bonus Plan
October 17, 2017
An annual bonus plan can be a great way to attract, retain and motivate employees. And if the plan is designed carefully, you can deduct bonuses earned this year even if you don’t pay them until next year.
The 2½ month rule
Many employers are aware of the “2½ month rule” and assume they can deduct bonuses earned during a tax year so long as they pay them within 2½ months after the end of that year (by March 15 for a calendar-year company). But that’s not always the case.
For one thing, this tax treatment is available only to accrual-basis taxpayers — cash-basis taxpayers must deduct bonuses in the year they’re paid, regardless of when they’re earned. Even for accrual-basis taxpayers, however, this treatment isn’t automatic. Bonuses can be deducted in the year they’re earned only if the employer’s bonus liability is fixed by the end of the year.
The all-events test
For accrual-basis taxpayers, the IRS determines when a liability (such as a bonus) has been incurred — and, therefore, is deductible — by applying the “all-events test.” Under this test, a liability is deductible when:
Generally, the third requirement isn’t an issue; it’s satisfied when an employee performs the services required to earn a bonus. But the first two requirements can delay your tax deduction until the year of payment, depending on how your bonus plan is designed.
For example, many bonus plans require an employee to remain in the company’s employ on the payment date as a condition of receiving the bonus. Even if the amount of the bonus is fixed at the end of the tax year, and employees who leave the company before the payment date forfeit their bonuses, the all-events test isn’t satisfied until the payment date. As discussed below, however, it’s possible to accelerate deductions with a carefully designed bonus pool arrangement.
Everyone into the pool
One solution to the problem described above is to establish a bonus pool. In a 2011 ruling, the IRS said that employers may deduct bonuses in the year they’re earned — even if there’s a risk of forfeiture — so long as any forfeited bonuses are reallocated among the remaining employees in the pool rather than retained by the employer.
Under such a plan, an employer satisfies the all-events test because the aggregate bonus amount is fixed at the end of the year, even though amounts allocated to specific employees aren’t determined until the payment date.
In reaching this result, the IRS has emphasized that the employer must:
Item 4 above is significant: It indicates that a bonus plan satisfies the all-events test if the minimum aggregate bonus is determined according to a formula that’s fixed by year end. This allows employers to deduct performance-based bonuses tied to earnings or other financial benchmarks, even if the exact amount isn’t determined until after year end, when the company’s financial reports are prepared.
To ensure that bonuses are deductible this year, employers shouldn’t retain any discretion to modify or cancel bonuses before the payment date or condition bonuses on approval by the board or a compensation committee after the end of the year.
Designing a bonus plan that allows you to accelerate deductions into this year for bonuses paid next year can reduce your tax bill and boost your cash flow. To enjoy these benefits, work with us to ensure you satisfy the all-events test.
Questions? Contact a member of our tax team at 404-874-6244 or fill out the form below.
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