There is a lot of confusion among small business owners when deciding on their entity classification and the tax savings involved. It is the first discussion I have with most business clients. It takes time to get pertinent information out so I decided it would be a good idea to write down.
There are five business entity choices, but it really is only three since two are default choices: sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company (and its close cousin, the limited liability partnership), regular corporation (also called a C corporation) and the S corporation. You default to a sole proprietorship if you are a one-person business or a partnership when two or more owners are involved.
Most attorneys feel every business ought to be an LLC. I agree with the attorneys on this and not only for legal reasons. I like to tell people LLCs are like tuna, it takes on the flavor of whatever you put it with. A single member LLC defaults to a sole proprietorship and joint owners to a partnership. There are no LLC tax forms (with the exception of the “check in the box” election form). A single member files a Schedule C on their personal return; a partnership files Form 1065 like any other partnership. Sole proprietor and partnership tax rules apply accordingly.
An LLC can also take on the flavor of a regular corporation or an S corporation by making a simple election. The “check in the box” election informs the IRS how you want to conduct your business. Most of you don’t want to follow regular corporation tax rules so you will file a second form electing to be treated as an S corporation.
Regular corporations pay their own taxes and dividends paid to the owners are not deductible by the corporation and are therefore double taxed. S corporation profits flow to the owner’s personal tax return and are only taxed on the personal level. Corporations must pay owners a reasonable wage. If you are wrapping your mind around this concept you will naturally want your wages from your LLC/S corporation as low as possible to avoid self-employment taxes on the pass-through profits. The IRS knows this and requires a reasonable wage, but reasonable is a wide road. The tax court is littered with cases on fair compensation. The IRS has provided a safe harbor (read note below) of 60% of profit as a reasonable wage.*
Example: You have an S corporation with $200,000 before owner’s payroll. Safe harbor for owner’s wages are $120,000.
Is it possible to have a lower wage and still be reasonable? Yes. A safe harbor is just that, a place where the IRS agrees not to challenge your position. Many owners will not use the safe harbor method. If you have employees (let’s say 20), a large portion of the profit is derived from said employees. Remember why S corporations exist. They allow small firms to conduct business without the negative tax rules of a large regular corporation while still maintaining the legal protection of the corporate structure. The concept of the S corporation is to allow profits from non-owner’s work (passive income) to flow through to the owners without the double taxation of regular corporation dividends or self-employment taxes on the profits derived from employees.
Small businesses frequently have several employees or subcontractors. A reasonable wage for owners may be higher or lower than 60%. Safe harbor is 60% so we can hang our hat on that nail as an owner’s wage ceiling. The higher the profits, the more likely the safe harbor will only be a guideline. There are several places online to find reasonable compensation numbers. Robert Half has a temp agency (Accountemps) that publishes reasonable compensation numbers for a large number of professionals; unemployment offices in most states do as well.
Before we start this part of the discussion I want to remind you I am not an attorney. I encourage you to consult a competent attorney if you have any questions. I only provide my understanding of LLC versus S corporation law as it pertains to taxes.
What is the difference between an LLC and S corporation? Both provide legal protection. It is easier to understand LLCs when you understand why they were created. LLCs were created for legal, medical, and accounting firms. The reason LLCs were needed for these industries is because regular corporation tax laws are devastating to service corporations (you pay the top tax rate on every dollar of profit) and S corporations back then could only have 25 owners (100 owners allowed now). The other drawback of a corporation is the liability issue of all-acts versus own-acts.
An attorney can explain all the different rules between an LLC and corporation, both C and S. We will not dive into those details. There is only one legal area we will review. Remember, I am not an attorney. What I share here is how I understand the laws regarding LLCs and corporations.
The difference between LLCs and corporations involves something called own-acts and all-acts. As I understand it, LLC owners are only liable for own-acts while corporation owners are liable for all-acts. This is easiest to understand with an illustration.
We will use a medical firm as our example. Suppose two groups of doctors get together to start a clinic. One group of doctors organizes as an S corporation, the other as an LLC. After some time in business both clinics suffer a malpractice lawsuit against one of their doctors. Unfortunately, both doctors lose their suit and own a huge settlement. In the S corporation, owners are liable for all-acts; therefore, all doctors are liable for the one doctor’s malpractice. The same situation happens in the LLC clinic. However, with an LLC, liability is only for own-acts; only the doctor sued is liable; the other doctors are protected from loss by the LLC.
Once again, review your situation with an attorney. Feel free to leave comments below. If I verify additional information, I will include it in a future edit.
Show me the Money
Now we get to the part I love the most, the money. How much money can you save in taxes with an LLC treated as an S corporation? To make it clearer for everyone I want to start with a really small company example and work up in size. We will assume our small business owner organized as a LLC from day one, but only elected to be treated as an S corporation at the appropriate time.
The micro business: We start our example with a small home-based business earning a modest $10,000 of profit per year. At this low level of profit electing to be treated as an S corporation is inadvisable. The cost of filing the extra tax return for the S corporation would eat up more than the tax savings. There is still one thing a business owner can do: rent out a portion of his home to his LLC.
Let me review the office in home rules. A single member LLC treated as a sole proprietor will follow office in home rules like a sole proprietor will with one additional option. The office in the home must be regular and exclusive. This means you can’t deduct a corner of the living room you use sometimes. The office in the home must be an exclusive area of the home (like a spare bedroom) and used only for the business.
The LLC is a person in the eyes of the law. (Remember Mitt Romney raising people’s ire when he said this on the campaign trail. He actually was right, even if his delivery could use some work.) Just because your business is reported with your personal tax return does not change the fact that the LLC is a person. Therefore, the LLC can rent space in your home from you. You must have a rent agreement between you and the LLC. You don’t need anything fancy. A simple commercial rental agreement will meet IRS requirements.
The LLC can deduct the full amount of the rent. With an office in the home it must be “regular and exclusive”. For a rent agreement between you and the LLC it only has to be for the benefit of the LLC, a much lower bar to hurdle.
Let me illustrate with some numbers:
Office in the home:
Safe harbor deduction of spare bedroom office used “regular and exclusive”: $720 ($5 per square foot x 144 (a 12×12 room))
Business profit after office in the home deduction: $9,280
Self-employment tax: $1,420 (we round numbers when we prepare taxes.
Income tax (assume 15% federal; 5% state): $1,856
Total taxes attributed to the business: $1420 + 1856 = $3,276 total tax
LLC renting space in your home:
Fair rental value of bedroom office, plus storage area of part of the garage and work area used in the basement: $500 per month; $6,000 per year
Business profit after office rent expense: $4000
Self-employment tax: $612
Rental income: $6,000 – rental portion of home expenses (mortgage interest, property tax, repairs and maintenance and depreciation) $720 (to keep consistent with the above example) = $5,280
Income tax: $4,000 (business profit) + $5,280 (rental profit) = $9,280 x 20% = $1856
Total taxes attributable to the business: $612 + $1,856 = $2,468
Total savings doing it the Wealthy Accountant way: $3,276 – $2,468 = $808
Not bad for a company only earning a $10,000 profit!
The next business we will review earns a $30,000 profit per year. I consider the $30,000 to $50,000 range a no-man’s zone. A $30,000 company can benefit from an LLC elected as an S corporation in some cases, depending on the industry. By the time you reach $50,000 it is easier to get enough tax benefits to offset the additional costs of an S corporation (payroll service expense and tax prep fee for the additional S corporation tax return). Our example will consider the LLC treated as an S corporation.
Our example will assume a small home-based business, but will not consider the LLC renting from you; I will incorporate that into the wage data which will give us nearly the exact same answer without getting to long here.
As a sole proprietor:
Self-employment tax: $4,590
Income tax federal and state at 20% combined: $6,000
Total tax: $10,590
Ouch! Now you can see why you start thinking of tax alternatives when your business starts generating $30,000 or more in profit. It becomes painful really fast.
As an S corporation:
Profit: $30,000 – $18,000 (owner’s wage) = $12,000
No self-employment tax.
Payroll tax: $18,000 x .153 = $2,754 (We will not consider unemployment taxes either.)
Income tax at 20%: $30,000 (profit plus wage) = $6,000
Total tax: $2,754 + $6,000 = $8,754
Total savings doing it the Wealthy Accountant way: $10,590 – $8,754 = $1,846
Better, but it still hurts having a business. Still, you get to keep over 6% more of your money.
As we move to higher levels of income we can introduce other methods of tax reduction. To keep our illustrations simple, however, I will review these additional tax cutting ideas in future posts. Always consider these illustrations as non-inclusive; there are always variables that will change the results. By painting a narrow brush stroke I can show how a strategy works in a vacuum.
The remainder of this post will provide a quick illustration of the tax savings for a non-home based S corporation over a sole proprietor at $50,000, $100,000, $150,000, $250,000, and $500,000 profit levels. Once we reach over $100,000 the Social Security portion of the self-employment/FICA tax begins to reach its threshold and the tax savings change. I’ll point this out when we get there.
Self-employment tax: $7,650
Income tax federal and state at 20% combined: $10,000
Total tax: $7,650 + $10,000 = $17,650
Profit: $50,000 – $30,000 (owner’s wage) = $20,000
No self-employment tax.
Payroll tax: $30,000 x .153 = $4,590
Income tax at 20%: $50,000 (profit plus wage) = $10,000
Total tax: $4,590 + $10,000 = $14,590
Total savings doing it the Wealthy Accountant way: $17,650 – $14,590 = $3,060
Self-employment tax: $15,300
Income tax federal and state at 25% combined: $25,000
Total tax: $15,300 + $25,000 = $40,300
Profit: $100,000 – $60,000 (owner’s wage) = $40,000
No self-employment tax.
Payroll tax: $60,000 x .153 = $9,180
Income tax at 25%: $100,000 (profit plus wage) = $25,000
Total tax: $9,180 + $25,000 = $34,180
Total savings doing it the Wealthy Accountant way: $40,300 – $34,180 = $6,120
At this point I assume there are employees of the S corporation other than owners and reasonable owner’s wages are less than the 60% safe harbor. The Social Security limit is $118,500 for 2016. Wages or profits (for sole proprietors) above this level only pay the 2.9 % Medicare portion of the self-employment tax or FICA tax (both employee and employer share).
Self-employment tax: $19,044
Income tax federal and state at 30% combined: $45,000
Total tax: $19,044 + $45,000 = $64,044
Profit: $150,000 – $70,000 (owner’s wage) = $80,000
No self-employment tax.
Payroll tax: $70,000 x .153 = $10,710
Income tax at 30%: $50,000 (profit plus wage) = $45,000
Total tax: $10,170 + $45,000 = $55,170
Total savings doing it the Wealthy Accountant way: $64,044 – $55,170 = $8,874
Self-employment tax: $21,944
Income tax federal and state at 40% combined: $100,000
Total tax: $21,944 + $100,000 = $121,944
Profit: $250,000 – $100,000 (owner’s wage) = $150,000
No self-employment tax.
Payroll tax: $100,000 x .153 = $15,300
Income tax at 40%: $250,000 (profit plus wage) = $100,000
Total tax: $15,300 + $100,000 = $115,300
Total savings doing it the Wealthy Accountant way: $121,944 – $115,300 = $6,644
Note: There is a bubble effect once your income hits a certain level. Your tax savings may decline if you don’t apply other tax strategies. Working in a vacuum illustrates how the tax saving affect different income levels.
Our final example will not consider and Affordable Healthcare taxes.
Self-employment tax: $29,194
Income tax federal and state at 40% combined: $200,000
Total tax: $29,194 + $200,000 = $229,194
Profit: $500,000 – $100,000 (owner’s wage) = $400,000
No self-employment tax.
Payroll tax: $100,000 x .153 = $15,300
Income tax at 40%: $500,000 (profit plus wage) = $200,000
Total tax: $15,300 + $200,000 = $215,300
Total savings doing it the Wealthy Accountant way: $229,194 – $215,300 = $13,894
A final thought: This area of tax law covers a complex issue. It is not the only tax cutting strategy a business can use, but a very important one. It is of vital importance to business owners if they wish to survive. Several factors could slightly diminish the illustrated tax advantages shown while a significant number of other tax opportunities can reduce the tax liability. If you started as a partnership, the tax savings approximately double, especially for a husband/wife partnership. Knocking $25,000 off the tax bill is meaningful money.
Even if you prepare your own taxes, a tax professional should help you set up your business entity and help you determine reasonable wages. So many factors can change the results. Your situation will differ based on facts and circumstances.
Note: I received many questions on forming an LLC or corporation. In my office we used a company for years called The Company Corporation. You can check out their service by clicking the highlighted text.They handle all U.S states.
* This isn’t exactly true. The IRS previously went through a laundry list of explanations over what “reasonable compensation” is. At one time they said any wage by the owner was acceptable, though there are many instances when they didn’t follow this, wanting a sizable owner’s wage. Then the IRS unofficially said $10,000 was a floor for the owner’s wage and to avoid “reasonable compensation” issues.
At some point a large number of accountants felt 60% was a good starting point for reasonable compensation when the IRS became more vague in their explanation. The IRS kind of, unofficially, acknowledged this “might” work.
As with everything, facts and circumstances prevail. An attorney with $100,000 in profit might be hard-pressed to argue $60,000 as reasonable compensation. A doctor could face the same issue. A plumber might argue 40% of profit as a reasonable owner’s wage and win.
It is my experience that the size of the company and number of employees matters. An S corp with 20 employees might only pay the owner 20% of profits as a salary and it could pass the reasonable compensation test. A one-man firm, on the other hand, might pay out nearly all profits as compensation to meet the “reasonable” requirement.
There are several salary guides available online. These guides provide an approximate wage or salary for the position in question. Salary guides are a good tool in determining a reasonable wage and winning an IRS audit should the IRS question your owner’s wage.
We use the 60% quasi safe harbor here and in our examples so we can more easily compare results.
More Wealth Building Resources
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Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.
PeerSteet is an alternative way to invest in the real estate market without the hassle of management. Investing in mortgages has never been easier. 7-12% historical APRs. Here is my review of PeerStreet.
QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.
A cost segregation study can save $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.
Amazon is a good way to control costs by comparison shopping. The cost of a product includes travel to the store. When you start a shopping trip to Amazon here it also supports this blog. Thank you very much!
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof or at minimum a darn good explanation. The Internet Retirement Police have attacked my peers over the years so my effort in this post is to provide a short definition of what “retirement” means.
For many people retirement is a beer in one hand, remote in the other. To a Wealthy Accountant (WA) this is not retirement, this is death. If your idea of retirement contains only a beer and remote you are dead, your body only forgot to stop breathing.
I am sure you have heard an older retired person say, “I am busier now that I am retired than when I was working.” I hear the same thing in my office. The retired people telling me this are alive, smiling and bouncy. These are happy people. The others, the ones that check out when the pension kicks in, age a decade in only a year or two. They have no reason to live. Retirement is akin to a nursing home or prison. At least in prison they let you out an hour a day. Some people barricade themselves in their home and quarantine themselves to a small area with a TV for days, weeks, even months at a time. And we wonder why their mental faculties decline.
As I outline my definition of retirement below it will become clear you can be retired at one point in your life and not retired at a later point. This is intentionally built into the definition. Most financial advisors and retirement gurus focus on how much money you have when helping you plan for retirement. And why not? Commissions are based upon getting your money in-house. WA’s know this is 100% wrong! To a WA retirement is based on spending.
It is not how much you have that makes you wealthy, it is what you spend. Think of it this way: suppose I tell you I make 1 million dollars per year. Am I rich? Without further information it is impossible to tell. If the world I am describing has $500 loaves of bread and rent of $100,000 per month you are actually in bad shape. If I tell you I only make $20,000 per year. Then what? Well, if my cost of living is only $15,000 per year I am saving 25% of my income. My nest egg will grow well into the six figures in short order.
The formula for calculating retirement is easy:
If Liquid Net Worth => Spending x 25
you are retired. Liquid net worth excludes primary residence equity only. This formula allows you to retire and live forever without running out of money or being forced to sell the home you live in. The formula assumes a 4% rate of return on your investments. More on the 4% rule in a future post.
When I say I retired at age 22 I am referring to this formula. I worked in high school on the family farm and saved 90% plus. I lived in the middle of nowhere. Where was I going to spend the money anyway?
By the time I was 22 I owned my own home (a very small one (I was single and not dating)) with a small loan. I was spending less than $6,000 per year. I was happy. I went to the library and read a lot of books.
Life was lonely and I knew I wanted to have a family. (Okay! I wanted a wife. A man has needs, you know.) At 23 I met Sue, my lovely bride of 27 years now. We were married a year and six days later. Expenses went up, but not crazy up. Sue is as frugal as I am, maybe more so. (I still do stupid shit from time to time.)
Here I was, 24, married and no longer retired. Two hundred thousand no longer met the “spending x 25” part of the equation. My hyper frugal, single life, ways were tested. Sue saved, too, but only added about $4,000 to the nest egg when we married; she had no debt. Sue also made less money than me as she ran a daycare from her parent’s home.
For the only time in my life I worked a real job (not for family or self-employed). For one year I worked as a custodian. Someday I’ll tell y’all how it all went down. For now, pity me. I worked for one year of my life. Yikes!
Normally I watch my money close. Early marriage caused me to make many changes. First, I ramped up my tax accounting work — I worked out of the home. My earned income rose to cover all bills and save 50% or more of my profits. Sue worked around three years before settling into retired life. I was not watching my net worth as close as I had in the past. Sometime around age 32 I added it all up and realized I crossed the seven figure mark. I guess you can say I re-retired. (Gawd, this is exhausting.)
There have been ups and downs over the decades. Now in my young 50s I finally call myself retired. In the past I silently did my thing while BSing people who asked what I did. (“Well, ya see, I work 20 hours a week for two months and then take a 10 month vacation…”)
An office in the home is a cheap way to run many businesses. By the early 1990s I had too many clients (hard to say no to good people) and employees, all run from a remodeled basement. In 1995 I moved the practice to an office building.
I am retired. Really! Don’t believe me? Well, look at my lifestyle. I bike to work three, maybe four times a week. At the office I read news, books, etc. If work comes in I delegate to my team. I am always available for advice and I am eager to use my experience to help people. But am I really working when I talk and not much else? In the middle of the day I leave my office for a mid-day job in the park adjacent to my office. I come and go as I please, love the work I do. My nest egg more than covers my lifestyle. So what say you? Am I retired?
In this blog we will use my definition of retirement. If your idea of retirement is a beer in one hand and a remote in the other, get out. NOW!
Would you hand me another cold one? Thanks.
Will Durant, the great 20th Century American philosopher and historian wrote in the Preface of his Story of Civilization: The Age of Napoleon:
“By the middle of the twentieth century,” says the Encyclopaedia Britannica (XVI, 10a), “the literature on Napoleon already numbered more than 100,000 volumes.” Why add to the heap? We offer no better reason than to say the Reaper repeatedly overlooked us, and left us to passive living and passive reading…
And so it is with your favorite accountant. According to a “personal finance blog” Google search there are around 96,100,000 results. Surely a few of the entries are not personal finance blogs, but many are. So why add to the heap? Will Durant was 90 years old when he wrote those words; I am 51 as I contemplate them.
Like Durant, I also have an unusual amount of time to engage in “passive living and passive reading”. Unlike Durant, I am still young and full of pent up energy to expend. I also think I have something of value to add.
Thirty plus years in the accounting industry can either lead to a dull man or a very wise one. As an optimist, I think I learned a few things over the years. I know of no other personal finance blog that is from the perspective I intend to use. (But I must admit I did not review all 96,100,000 blogs Google lists.) My vision is to provide a fun and entertaining blog in the personal finance genre without undue focus on taxes. Taxes will play a significant role, but only as it applies to living life right, or lifestyle.
This blog will focus on “living right”. Over the years I have seen things few people can imagine. So, this blog is about the worldview from my side of the desk, your accountant’s desk. People tell their doctor, attorney and accountant things they tell no one else, including their spouse. Since most people see their accountant more than any other professional, accountants hear more really good stories. Some are funny, some even make you cry.
It has bothered me for over 30 years when I know a client is getting divorced before they do. When a client has a gambling or drinking problem I frequently know it before the spouse does. I have professionals making a half million or more a year and are broke. How do they do that? I have clients earning under $25,000 per year and maxing out their IRA or taking the maximum 401(k) deduction. How do THEY do it! I know what works. I’ve seen it all (or at least one big, fat juicy part of it).
Over the next weeks, months and years I hope to expose why so many accountants (with their inside knowledge) are often broke. Business owners will want to pay special attention as I review how to start, grow and maintain a business that is the right size for you. What I share here will be new to most people, even financial professionals. I cross industry fields and commingle each discipline to gain the greatest benefit. Some things I plan to share in the near future are: getting paid to travel; double or triple your business in a short period of time; live comfortably working 10-15 hours a week; retire super early (like by the time you are 30 or 7-10 years from now even if you have a zero net worth); how many people can pay no income tax legally (jail is not a retirement option I recommend); acquire $10,000 or more annually tax free; how to stop letting things bother you so you can achieve your dreams; and more.
Have I whetted your appetite? I hope so. It is time for us to go on a journey together. At some point you will want to break away and fly on your own. Yes that is a tear at the corner of my eye; I grow attached to the people I share my life with. No matter where you go I will be thinking of you.
Some of what I share might be considered useless by many. The stuff alluded to above is what many people focus on; it draws them to blogs like this. But other information is sobering. For example, I am always humbled when I see the number of young people dying every year. Recently a business owner (owner of six gas stations) died in his sleep one night of a heart attack. He was 51; I am 51; it does not seem so old to me. When a client comes in and tells me of a family member under 30 years of age dying or killed I am at a loss for words. I could go on. Rather, I want to expose the point. We are all lucky, every one of us, are fantastically lucky because we are alive. Once we realize how lucky we are we can make each day we have count.
Let’s not focus on the negative. We must enjoy every moment of life and smile. There are so many wonderful things in life to experience and enjoy. Let me be your guide.
To my clients: You will find things here you never heard me say before. Understand, it is humanly impossible to say everything I know to each person I meet. (It would also be annoying if I did.) My goal is to make your life better, too. Yes, I prepare your taxes and handle your bookkeeping, payroll, and audits, plus help you grow your businesses, but there is so much more. My goal is to help you gain all you are searching for. Let me be that guide.
What qualifies me to teach this information? There are a lot of accountants and accounting firms in the world. What makes me so special? I am a wealthy accountant, most are not. Over the years I have helped a lot of people. My office has law firms as clients. We also serve other accounting firms as clients. This blows the mind when you think of it. When accounting firms get in trouble they come to me. I am good at what I do. When a local Sheriff’s Department got entangled in a Ponzi scheme I was called in to clean it up. I take the cases no one else wants. This does not make me better, but it does give me unique experiences.
Please join me as we embark on this journey. The worldview from my side of the desk is enlightening. What I see and learn from my position in life is powerful information anyone can use to improve their life. Let’s make it fun, too.