Bonuses and year-end tax planning
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As the end of the calendar year approaches, taxpayers ordinarily prefer to minimize current-year income by deferring the inclusion of taxable income to the following year, while accelerating deductions to the current year. However, as many taxpayers are aware, individual income tax rates may increase in 2013, with the potential for dramatic increases for higher-income individuals (if not all individuals).
While it is unclear how many taxpayers will see tax increases in 2013, it is certain that rates will not be any lower than they are in 2012. Thus, some, if not all, individuals will have an incentive to accelerate income into 2012.
Annual bonuses for 2012
Employees earning annual bonuses for services performed in 2012 ordinarily would receive the bonus in 2013. And generally the employer would take the deduction in 2013. However, some employees may prefer to receive the bonus in 2012, to take advantage of the lower current tax rates. An employer may want to deduct the bonus in the earlier year, to reduce taxable income. The IRS recently issued Chief Counsel Advice (CCA 201246029) on the treatment of a bonus that illustrates some of the practical obstacles to accelerating bonus income.
A lesson learned
In the CCA, the employer awarded bonuses for the calendar year (the year of service) based on company performance. The total bonus amount accrued for financial accounting purposes at the end of the year. The bonuses were paid early in the following year, after the employer finalized the amounts, provided that the employee still worked for the company.
In Rev. Rul. 2011-29, the IRS determined that the employer can accrue liability, and take a deduction, for bonuses in the earlier year, where the employer can establish the fact of the liability for bonuses paid to a group of employees, even though the recipients’ identities and amounts payable were determined in the following year. In contrast, in the CCA, the IRS concluded that the taxpayer’s liability to pay bonuses was not fixed until the contingency was satisfied – the employee had to be still employed on the date of payment. Therefore, the bonuses were not deductible until the following year, when they were paid.
While the CCA does not discuss it, presumably if the employer paid the bonuses in the year of service (2012), they would be deductible in that same year. The employees would take the bonuses into income in 2012, when tax rates were lower. Furthermore, the income would avoid the new 0.9 percent additional Medicare tax on earned income, which takes effect in 2013.
Important timing exception
In the CCA, the timing was identical for the employer and the employee. Under Code Sec. 404, concerning deferred compensation, the employer may not deduct the bonus until the same time that the employee takes it into income. Under an exception, however, if the employer pays the bonus in 2013 but within 2 ½ months after the end of 2012, an accrual basis taxpayer can deduct the payment in the current year, even though the employee would not include it in income until it is paid in 2013. This presumes that the bonuses are fixed at the end of 2012 and that the employer does not use a plan like the one described in the CCA.
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