Timing Year-End Bonuses for Tax Purposes
Taxpayers generally prefer to accelerate deductions to reduce their current year income and taxes. In some situations, the tax code's accounting rules allow an accrual-basis employer to deduct a year-end employee bonus in the current year, even though the bonus will not be paid until the following year. A recent IRS Chief Counsel memorandum (FAA 20134301F) highlights some of the pitfalls that can affect when bonus compensation is deductible.
Under the accrual-method of accounting (in contrast to the cash-method of accounting), a liability is incurred, and can be deducted, in the year in which:
- All the events have occurred that establish the fact of the liability;
- The amount of the liability can be determined with reasonable accuracy; and
- Economic performance has occurred.
The first factor, the all-events test, is met when the event fixing the liability occurs and payment is unconditionally due. Although an expense may be deductible before it is payable, liability must be firmly established. The "fact of liability" depends on whether legal rights or obligations exist as of the close of the year, not the probability that the rights will arise in the future.
An employer may establish an arrangement or plan that will pay a bonus to its employees in the succeeding year, based on an evaluation of current year performance. Performance could be determined by objective factors, such as numerical goals set for the company or the employee. These bonuses may be deductible in the earlier year even though the employee, who must figure taxes on the cash method, won't need to recognize the income until it is paid. Or performance may be based on more subjective factors, such as an individual performance appraisal or the employer's discretion. These bonuses may be deductible in the later year. The requirements for awarding the bonus must be scrutinized, to determine when the liability becomes certain.
Is the liability deductible?
The IRS has stated that a bonus can be deducted in the current year if, under a bonus plan, the employee is notified in the current year the employee will receive a bonus, even though the bonus is not calculated or paid until the following year. An employer's bonus liability that is ascertainable by a fixed standard, such as a percentage of profits at the close of the year, accrues and is deductible in the current year even though the computations are not made until the following year.
A bonus is not deductible prior to payment if an employee must remain employed until the time of payment, and if a forfeited bonus reverts to the employer. However, even if an employee must be employed until paid, the IRS has ruled that a bonus is deductible under a pooled arrangement providing that any forfeited bonuses are reallocated to the employees as a group, where the minimum amount payable to the group is determinable through a fixed formula at the end of the year or by board action before the end of the year.
Employers may be denied a deduction in the current year if there are uncertainties or conditions on payment. As stated above, a condition that the employee must remain with the company until payment prevents accrual before the payment. A deduction is not available if the payment is subject to significant contingencies involving corporate affairs, such as approval by the board, or a requirement that the company attain a particular cash position. If there is no set formula, and bonuses will not be determined until after the close of the year, the bonuses do not accrue until the later year.
In the IRS memorandum, Chief Counsel determined that a bonus could not be accrued in the earlier year in the following situations:
- The employer retained the right to unilaterally modify or eliminate the bonus plan or the bonuses themselves at any time, in its discretion. The employer had no legal obligation to pay the bonus until it was actually paid.
- The plan requires a committee of the board of directors to act in the following year to approve the bonus computation and the payment of bonuses. There is no legal obligation because the committee must approve the bonuses, and that approval is not automatic.
- The bonus depends not only on objective formulas but also on the employee's individual performance score, based on appraisals that are not performed until after the end of the year.
There is a tension between the employer's desire to accelerate the deduction and its desire to retain maximum control over the payment of bonuses. An employer that wants to deduct the bonuses in an earlier year must be willing to relinquish some of its discretion to determine the bonus.