On March 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued its unanimous (8-0) decision in U.S. v Quality Stores, 572 U.S. ____ (2014). In its opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court held that the severance payments at issue constituted taxable wages for FICA purposes. The severance payments in question were made to employees in connection with an involuntary termination, were varied based on job seniority and time served, and were not linked to the receipt of state unemployment benefits. In so holding, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and resolved a split in the courts. See CSX Corp. v. United States, 518 F. 3d 1328 (Fed. Cir. 2008).
The Court reasoned that severance payments of the type described fit plainly within the definition of “wages” under Section 3121 of the Internal Revenue Code, which defines “wages” for FICA tax purposes broadly as “all remuneration for employment” and defines employment as “any service, of whatever nature, performed by an employee for the person employing him.” According to the Court, common sense dictates that severance payments are remuneration that is received by employees in consideration for employment because severance payments are made only to employees. In addition, the Court noted that the fact that severance payments often vary according to the function and seniority of a particular employee was a further indication that the payments are made to reward employees for their service.
The Supreme Court considered the arguments made by the taxpayer under Code section 3402(o) but found them to be erroneous and concluded that Code section 3402(o), which relates to income tax withholding, does not narrow the term “wages” under FICA to exempt all severance payments. The Court noted that the taxpayer’s position would result in severance payments not being subject to FICA taxation while they would be deemed wages for purposes of income tax withholding. The Court concluded that such a result would be inconsistent with the broad principle set forth by the Supreme Court in Rowan Cos., Inc. v. United States, 452 U.S. 247 (1981) that simplicity of administration and consistency of statutory interpretation instruct that the meaning of “wages” should be in general the same for income-tax withholding and for FICA calculations.
The Court noted in its decision that the IRS still provides, in Rev. Rul. 90-72, that supplemental unemployment benefit (“SUB”) payments tied to the receipt of state unemployment benefits are exempt from income tax withholding and from FICA taxation. Because the severance payments at issue in Quality Stores were not linked to state unemployment benefits, the Court expressly declined to reach the question of whether the IRS’ current exemption is consistent with the broad definition of wages under FICA.
As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, the IRS will not need to refund an estimated $1 billion in FICA taxes previously paid in connection with severance payments. Protective claims that have been filed by taxpayers will be denied. Going forward, employers must continue to treat severance payments as “wages” subject to FICA taxes unless they are linked to state unemployment compensation and otherwise qualify for the SUB pay exemption recognized by the IRS under Rev. Rul. 90-72.
See our prior blog posts for additional information regarding this case.
As noted in our blog entry on October 16, 2012, under the Sixth Circuit’s discussion in U.S. v. Quality Stores, severance payments made because of an employee’s involuntary separation resulting from a reduction-in-force or discontinuance of a plant or operation are not subject to FICA taxes. This holding is contrary to a prior decision of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals and published IRS guidance. The government has until May 3 to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. Until a final decision in this case has been rendered, taxpayers that have made severance payments in 2009 should file a protective claim for a FICA tax refund no later than April 15, 2013. This protective claim will preserve the taxpayer’s right to a refund should the IRS not appeal the decision or should the decision be upheld on appeal.
It’s that time of year again! Time to ensure year-end executive compensation deadlines are satisfied and time to plan ahead for 2013. Below is a checklist of selected executive compensation topics designed to help employers with this process.
I. 2012 Year-End Compliance and Deadlines
□ Section 409A – Amendment Deadline for Payments Triggered by Date Employee Signs a Release
It is fairly common for an employer to condition eligibility for severance pay on the release of all employment claims by the employee. Many of these arrangements include impermissible employee discretion in violation of Section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code because the employee can accelerate or delay the receipt of severance pay by deciding when to sign and submit the release. IRS Notice 2010-6 (as modified by IRS Notice 2010-80), includes transition relief until December 31, 2012 to make corrective amendments to plans and agreements.
Generally, the arrangement may be amended to either (1) include a fixed payment date following termination, subject to an enforceable release (without regard to when the release is signed), or (2) provide for payment during a specified period and if the period spans two years, payment will always occur in the second year. We recommend employers review existing employment, severance, change in control and similar arrangements to ensure compliance with this payment timing requirement. The December 31, 2012 deadline for corrective amendments is fast approaching.
□ Compensation Deferral Elections
Compensation deferral elections for amounts otherwise payable in 2013 must generally be documented and irrevocable no later than December 31, 2012. The remainder of 2012 is sure to pass quickly, especially with the added distractions of the elections and tax law uncertainty. Employers should consider additional communications to ensure the deadline is not overlooked. (It’s also a good time to confirm 409A compliance generally, as we have discussed previously.)
□ Payroll Deduction True-Up for Fringe Benefits and Other Compensation
Some employers utilize a rule for administrative convenience that permits income and employment tax withholding on certain items of compensation to be made at the end of the year (i.e., imputed income on after-tax long-term disability premiums). Employers should ensure that all payroll deductions for taxable compensation for the year are taken into consideration.
□ Annual Compensation Risk Assessment for SEC Reporting Companies
Beginning with the 2010 proxy season, companies have been required to perform a risk assessment of their compensation policies and practices. The purpose of the assessment is to evaluate compensation-related risk-taking incentives. Where a company determines that its employee compensation program includes “risky” pay policies and practices, it must include disclosures (including mitigating practices). In recent addresses, representatives of the SEC have included a “reminder” to public companies that the compensation risk assessment must be performed annually.
□ Compensation Consultant Conflict of Interest Assessment for SEC Reporting Companies
Beginning with the 2013 proxy season, the Dodd-Frank Act requires a company to disclose whether the work of its compensation consultant has raised any conflict of interest. The assessment should consider six specified factors outlined in the rules. The purpose of the assessment is to determine whether the work of the consultant raised a conflict of interest. If the company determines a conflict of interest was raised, the company must disclose the nature of the conflict and how the conflict is being addressed.
II. 2013 Planning
□ Section 162(m) Employer Compensation Deduction Limit
Section 162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code limits the deduction for a publicly-held corporation to $1 million for each covered employee (typically the chief executive officer and four most highly compensated officers, other than the CEO and CFO). This deduction limit does not apply to “qualified performance-based compensation.” To qualify for the exception, the compensation must be payable solely on account of the attainment of one or more pre-established performance goals and other technical requirements must be satisfied. Employers should review their plan design and administrative practices to ensure compliance with the technical requirements. For example: (1) review the timing of prior shareholder approval to determine whether new shareholder approval must be obtained in 2013, (2) confirm that the compensation committee is comprised solely of two or more “outside directors,” and (3) ensure that the committee timely establishes the performance goals for the new performance period, and pre-certifies the level of achievement of the performance goals at the end of each performance period. A few other technical requirements to note include:
- If the company issues restricted stock and restricted stock units (RSUs) that are designed to qualify as performance-based compensation, any related dividends and dividend equivalents must separately satisfy the performance-based compensation requirements (i.e., must be contingent on achievement of the performance goals).
- It is common for a shareholder-approved equity plan to include a per-employee share limit for a stated period for awards granted under the plan. It is important for the company to keep track of this limit to ensure actual awards do not exceed this cap.
New for 2013 – Deduction Limit for Health Insurance Providers and Related Entities
A new provision enacted under the Health Care Reform law takes effect on January 1, 2013. New Section 162(m)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code limits the deduction covered health insurance providers (and their related entities) may take for compensation paid to certain employees in excess of $500,000. There is no performance-based compensation exception to this limit.
□ Monitor Tax Law Changes
There are a number of tax law changes scheduled to occur beginning in 2013 that will impact required income and employment tax withholding for many forms of executive and equity compensation. Congress could act to extend some tax rate cuts beyond 2012. We recommend employers monitor tax law developments and be prepared to make changes to current payroll reporting processes. Below are some of these changes:
Employment Taxes. On October 16, 2012, the Social Security Administration announced employment tax rates for 2013. The taxable wage base for earnings subject to the Social Security tax for 2013 is $113,700, up from $110,100 in 2012. In addition to an increase in the Social Security taxable wage base, the tax withholding rate is scheduled to return to 6.2% (the temporary 4.2% reduced rate is scheduled to expire at the end of 2012). The Medicare tax also applies and the required withholding rate is an additional 1.45% with no wage limit. Starting in 2013, an additional Medicare tax of 0.9% applies to earnings from wages and other taxable compensation over a threshold amount (i.e., $200,000-$250,000 based on filing status).
Supplemental Wage Withholding. The supplemental wage withholding rate is used by employers for income tax withholding on bonus, commissions, severance payments, equity awards and other special payments. The supplemental wage withholding rate for 2012 is 25% or a mandatory 35% once aggregate supplemental wages exceed $1 million for the year. Due to the scheduled expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, the 2013 rates are scheduled to increase to 28% and 39.6% for aggregate amounts in excess of $1 million.
□ Proxy Statement Preparation for SEC Reporting Companies
With the implementation of Say on Pay, proxy statement disclosures serve as a key investor communication tool to help explain the company’s compensation program and how it ties to company performance. Now is the time to improve disclosures and implement best practices for the upcoming proxy season. Below are some areas for consideration:
On September 7th, 2012, the 6th Circuit upheld the District Court’s decision in U.S. v. Quality Stores, holding that severance payments made to employees in connection with an involuntary reduction in force were not “wages” subject to FICA taxes. United States v. Quality Stores, Inc. (In re Quality Stores, Inc.), 424 B.R. 237 (W.D. Mich. 2010), aff’d, 10-1563, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 18820 (6th Cir. September 7, 2012). In so holding, the 6th Circuit reasoned that such severance payments were supplemental unemployment compensation benefits (“SUB Pay”) within the meaning of § 3402(o)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”) exempt from FICA taxes.
This holding is directly at odds with the position of the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”), set forth in Revenue Ruling 90-72, that such severance payments are wages for FICA purposes and not SUB Pay. According to the IRS, the definition of SUB Pay in § 3402(o)(2) of the Code is not applicable for FICA purposes. The IRS has defined SUB Pay for FICA purposes through a series of revenue rulings. Under the IRS definition, SUB Pay must be linked to the receipt of state unemployment compensation and must not be received in a lump sum in order to be excludable from wages for FICA purposes. The 6th Circuit rejected the IRS definition reasoning that Congress intended the same definition to apply for both FICA and income tax withholding purposes and that, to the extent that Congress has permitted the IRS to decouple the definition, it must be done by regulation and not by administrative rulings.
The IRS may issue a nonacquiescence and petition the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari. The petition may be granted because this decision has created a split in the courts. In CSX Corp. v U.S., 518 F.3d 1328 (Fed. Cir. 2008), the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals held that the severance payments at issue were subject to FICA taxes.
Employers may be entitled to a FICA tax refund for FICA taxes paid on severance payments made pursuant to an involuntary reduction in force, the discontinuance of a plant or operation or other similar condition. As a result, employers who made severance payments in any open year under these circumstances may want to assert a protective claim by filing Form 941-X prior to the applicable statute of limitations deadline. A protective claim must be filed by April 15, 2013 for payments made in 2009. In the meantime, employers should continue to treat such payments as subject to FICA taxes pending further developments.
Code Section 409A is, in part, a response to perceived deferred compensation abuses at companies like Enron and WorldCom. The story of Code Section 409A’s six month delay provision is inextricably tied to the Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies.
Under established IRS tax principles, participants’ rights under a non-qualified plan can be no greater than the claims of a general creditor. Because deferred compensation plans often pay out upon termination of employment, a plan participant with knowledge of a likely future bankruptcy could potentially terminate employment and take a non-qualified plan distribution to the detriment of the company’s creditors (a number or Enron executives with advance knowledge of Enron’s accounting irregularities did just this). This opportunistic cash out is obviously unfair to the company’s creditors. In addition, the cash out only helps hasten the likely bankruptcy because non-qualified plan payments come from the general assets of the company.
How did Congress solve this problem? By requiring that a payment of deferred compensation to any of the most highly compensated employees of public companies (called “specified employees”) be delayed at least six months if the payment is due to a separation from service. The thought was that for public companies (like Enron and WorldCom), plan participants would not have enough time to opportunistically terminate employment and receive payout if the payouts were delayed at least six months following termination.
Code Section 409A requires that the six month delay for specified employees of public companies be codified in the relevant plan document. Generally, plans are drafted so that payments due upon separation from service are delayed the required six months, but only if the terminating employee is a specified employee at the time of termination, and only to the extent such payments are “deferred compensation” within the meaning of Code Section 409A.
What should you do if you work for a public corporation and your high-level employment and severance agreements do not contain the required six month delay language? (more…)
Let’s say that you are negotiating your CEO’s new employment agreement. Because she is preparing for retirement, the CEO would like to be entitled to a stream of monthly lifetime separation payments upon her voluntary termination. This type of lifetime benefit makes sense for your company, and, based on the CEO’s long and faithful service to the company, you agree.
The CEO then asks for a provision calling for an immediate lump-sum payment upon her involuntary termination. The amount of the payment would be the present value, using reasonable actuarial assumptions, of the monthly separation pay annuity. This request seems reasonable – the fact that things may go sour in the future doesn’t change the fact of the CEO’s long service. And in an involuntary termination situation, who would want to receive payments over a period of time rather than in a lump sum? Should you agree to this request?
No. And regular readers of this blog will not be surprised as to why – Code Section 409A.
Code Section 409A generally requires that payments be made in a single form following each permissible payment triggering event. This means, for example, that a plan couldn’t provide for payment of an amount in a lump-sum if a change in control occurs in a January and a one-year stream of payments if a change in control occurs in a February. Payment forms can differ, however, if the permissible triggering event differs. It is permissible to call for payment of an amount over five years upon separation from service, but call for an immediate lump-sum payment of the same amount upon an intervening change in control.
There are quite a few exceptions to this rule. First, a payment upon a triggering event other than a separation from service can be in different forms on either side of an objectively determinable pre-specified date. For example, a change in control benefit could be paid in a lump-sum if the change in control occurs prior to a plan participant’s attainment of age 55 and could be paid in a life annuity if the change in control occurs after age 55. In essence, this exception permits a plan to “toggle” between two (and only two) forms of payment.
Separation from service payments can potentially “toggle” between three different forms of payment: a normal form of payment, a separate form for separations within up to two years following a change in control, and a final form for separations that occur before or after a specified date (or combination of a date and years of service). For example, an employment agreement could call for the same amount of separation pay to be paid in 36 monthly installments upon separation before age 62, a life annuity upon separation on or after age 62, and in a lump-sum if separation occurs during the year following a change in control.
What to do if your plan impermissibly toggles between forms of payments? The IRS generally permits correction by amending the plan so that the longest permissible forms of payment apply. And if the problematic triggering event occurs within one year of the date of correction, penalties could apply. As always, certain correction documents must be filed with the IRS.
Over the next several weeks, we will be writing about five common Code Section 409A design errors and corrections.
It should (but will not) go without saying that Code Section 409A has an extraordinarily broad reach. Many claim this reach is overbroad. One commonly cited example of this overbreadth is that Code Section 409A regulates taxable employee reimbursements.
Why does Code Section 409A regulate reimbursements? The concern is that an employee and employer will collude to achieve reimbursement of extravagant personal expenses many years after the expense is incurred. This “late” reimbursement would have the effect of unreasonably deferring taxation of the reimbursable expense, potentially into a year that is tax-advantageous for the employee.
The IRS’s solution? Ensure that expenses eligible for reimbursement are objectively determinable and reimbursed within a limited period of time following the date in which the expense is incurred. Here’s a list of the IRS’s requirements:
- Definition of Reimbursable Expense. Code Section 409A requires an objectively determinable definition of an expense eligible for reimbursement. The description of the reimbursable expense does not need to be extensive, but does need to be written into the relevant plan document (which could be an employment agreement).
- Prescribed Reimbursement Period. Eligible expenses must be incurred during a prescribed period of time. This period of time can be as long or as short as desired – the lifetime of the service provider works for Code Section 409A purposes. Again, this needs to be written into the plan document.
- Reimbursement Limits Affect Only One Calendar Year. The amount of expenses eligible for reimbursement in one taxable year cannot affect the amount eligible for reimbursement in other taxable years. This requirement must be reflected in the plan document.
- Reimbursement Timing. Reimbursements must occur by the end of the taxable year following the year in which the expense was incurred.
- No Exchange or Liquidation. The right to reimbursement can not be subject to liquidation or exchange for another benefit.
Of these requirements, the requirement that the amount of reimbursements in one year not affect another year is often the biggest stumbling block. Consider, for example, a multi-year employment agreement that, for corporate governance reasons, limits reimbursable expense over the life of the agreement to $20,000. This provision violates Code Section 409A. (more…)
Over the next several weeks, we will be writing about five common Code Section 409A design errors and corrections. This is the first of those posts.
You are designing an executive employment agreement with a substantial severance component. For the amount of severance, it seems fair to condition payment upon execution of an agreement waiving all employment claims (ADA, age discrimination, etc.). Why not just say that severance payments don’t begin until the executive returns the claims release? The answer – Code Section 409A.
Incredulous? Here’s the concern. An employee who will begin to receive severance upon return of a release could potentially hold on to the release until the year following his or her termination. What does that achieve? Because the severance is taxable when actually paid, the employee could hold on to a release, defer taxation, and ultimately pay fewer taxes on the severance. Employee discretion as to the timing of taxation exercised opportunistically upon termination of employment is anathema to Code Section 409A.
There are two common solutions to this design problem, both with advantages and disadvantages. (more…)
‘TIS THE SEASON to check executive deferred compensation practices for operational compliance with section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code and the specific terms of company plans and employment agreements.
Common operational errors include deferring too much or too little and making distributions too large, too small, too early or too late.
Even a minor operational error can cause trouble unless it is corrected promptly. Some types of operational errors discovered in the year of the error or one of the next two years can be corrected without ruinous results under IRS procedures. This makes it appropriate to review your 2011 deferral and distribution records to make sure everything is just right or to identify issues and make prompt corrections. If you did not review your records for 2009 or 2010, that also would be worth doing now. Although the corrections approved by the IRS are more difficult and more costly for errors that occurred in the two prior years, making an approved correction is still far better than the onerous taxes imposed on the affected employee if no correction is made.
The correction procedures are described at length in IRS Notice 2008-113. Please call us if we can be of assistance.