Compensation may take several forms, including salary, fringe benefits and bonuses. If you’re an executive or other key employee, you might receive stock-based compensation, such as restricted stock, restricted stock units (RSUs) or stock options (either incentive or nonqualified). Nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) may also be included in your exec comp package. The tax consequences of these types of compensation can be complex — subject to ordinary income, capital gains, payroll, and other taxes. So smart tax planning is critical.

Restricted stock

Restricted stock is stock your employer grants to you subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture. Income recognition is normally deferred until the stock is no longer subject to that risk (that is, it’s vested) or you sell it. When the restriction lapses, you pay taxes on the stock’s fair market value (FMV) at your ordinary-income rate. (The FMV will be considered FICA income, so it could trigger or increase your exposure to the additional 0.9% Medicare tax.)

But with a Section 83(b) election, you can instead recognize ordinary income when you receive the stock. This election, which you must make within 30 days after receiving the stock, allows you to convert potential future appreciation from ordinary income to long-term capital gains income and defer it until the stock is sold.

The election can be beneficial if the income at the grant date is negligible, or the stock is likely to appreciate significantly before income would otherwise be recognized. And with ordinary-income rates now especially low under the TCJA, it might be a good time to recognize income.

There are some potential disadvantages of a Sec. 83(b) election, however. First, prepaying tax in the current year could push you into a higher income tax bracket and trigger or increase your exposure to the additional 0.9% Medicare tax. But if your company is in the earlier stages of development, the income recognized may be relatively small.

Second, any taxes you pay because of the election can’t be refunded if you eventually forfeit the stock or sell it at a decreased value. However, you’d have a capital loss in those situations.

Third, when you sell the shares, any gain will be included in net investment income and could trigger or increase your liability for the 3.8% NIIT. Also, for the highest-income taxpayers, raising the long-term capital gains rate to equal the ordinary income rate has been proposed. So, depending on whether that proposal becomes law and your income level, the Sec. 83(b) election might not provide a tax benefit.

Read Case Study below for additional information and work with your IMC tax advisor to map out whether the Sec. 83(b) election is appropriate for your situation.

Deferral opportunity available for stock-based compensation in certain situations.

Lina was about to receive some stock-based compensation from her employer, so she contacted her tax advisor to find out what the tax consequences would be. Her advisor explained that the tax treatment would depend on the type of stock-based compensation. For example, Lina might be able to take advantage of the Section 83(b) election. Or she might be eligible for a tax break under the TCJA. The TCJA break allows for the deferral of tax on stock-based compensation in certain circumstances. Generally, it gives taxpayers the opportunity to match the taxation of restricted stock and stock options with the timing of the sale of the stock. It’s intended for situations in which there is no ready market for the sale of the stock. The availability of the deferral opportunity is limited, however. It generally will apply only if at least 80% of full-time employees are covered by the stock-based compensation plan.

Restricted Stock Units

Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) are contractual rights to receive stock, or its cash value, after the award has vested. Unlike restricted stock, RSUs aren’t eligible for the Sec. 83(b) election. So, there’s no opportunity to convert ordinary income into capital gains.

But they do offer a limited ability to defer income taxes: Unlike restricted stock, which becomes taxable immediately upon vesting, RSUs aren’t taxable until the employee receives the stock. So rather than having the stock delivered immediately upon vesting, you may be able to arrange with your employer to delay delivery.

Such a delay will defer income tax and may allow you to reduce or avoid exposure to the additional 0.9% Medicare tax (because the RSUs are treated as FICA income). However, any income deferral must satisfy the strict requirements of Internal Revenue Code Section 409A. Also keep in mind that it might be better to recognize income now because of the currently low tax rates.

Incentive Stock Options

Incentive stock options (ISOs) allow you to buy company stock in the future (but before a set expiration date) at a fixed price equal to or greater than the stock’s FMV at the date of the grant. Thus, ISOs don’t provide a benefit until the stock appreciates in value. If it does, you can buy shares at a price below what they’re then trading for, provided you’re eligible to exercise the options.

ISOs receive tax-favored treatment but must comply with many rules. Here are the key tax consequences: y You owe no tax when ISOs are granted.

  • You owe no regular income tax when you exercise the ISOs.
  • If you sell the stock after holding the options for at least one year and then holding the shares for at least one year from the exercise date, you pay tax on the sale at your long-term capital gains rate. (Depending on what happens with proposed tax law changes and your income level, this could end up being the same as your ordinary rate.) You also may owe the NIIT.
  • If you sell the stock before long-term capital gains treatment applies, a “disqualifying disposition” occurs and any gain is taxed as compensation at ordinary-income rates. (Disqualified dispositions aren’t, however, subject to FICA and Medicare tax, including the additional 0.9% Medicare tax.)

Warning: If you don’t sell the stock in the year of exercise, a tax “preference” item is created for the difference between the stock’s FMV and the exercise price (the “bargain element”) that can trigger the AMT. A future AMT credit, however, should mitigate this AMT hit. Plus, you may now be at lower AMT risk because of the higher AMT exemption and exemption phaseout range under the TCJA. (See 2021 Income Tax Rate Schedule.) Consult your IMC tax advisor because the rules are complex.

If you’ve received ISOs, plan carefully when to exercise them and whether to immediately sell shares received from an exercise or hold them. Waiting to exercise ISOs until just before the expiration date (when the stock value may be the highest, assuming the stock is appreciating) and holding on to the stock long enough to garner long-term capital gains treatment often is beneficial. But there’s also market risk to consider. Plus, acting earlier can be advantageous in several situations:

  • Exercise early to start the holding period so you can sell and receive long-term capital gains treatment sooner.
  • Exercise when the bargain element is small or when the market price is close to bottoming out to reduce or eliminate AMT liability.
  • Exercise annually so you can buy only the number of shares that will achieve a breakeven point between the AMT and regular tax and thereby incur no additional tax.
  • Sell in a disqualifying disposition and pay the higher ordinary-income rate to avoid the AMT on potentially disappearing appreciation.

On the negative side, exercising early accelerates the need for funds to buy the stock, exposes you to a loss if the shares’ value drops below your exercise cost, and may create a tax cost if the preference item from the exercise generates an AMT liability.

The timing of ISO exercises also could positively or negatively affect your liability for higher tax rates and the NIIT.

Nonqualified Stock Options

The tax treatment of nonqualified stock options (NQSOs) is different from the tax treatment of ISOs: NQSOs create compensation income (taxed at ordinary-income rates) on the bargain element when exercised (regardless of whether the stock is held or sold immediately), but they don’t create an AMT preference item.

You may need to make estimated tax payments or increase withholding to fully cover the tax on the exercise. Keep in mind that an exercise could trigger or increase exposure to top tax rates, the additional 0.9% Medicare tax and the NIIT.

Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plans

Nonqualified Deferred Compensation Plans (NQDCs) pay executives in the future for services to be currently performed. They differ from qualified plans, such as 401(k)s, in several ways. For example, unlike 401(k) plans, NQDC plans can favor highly compensated employees, but plan funding isn’t protected from the employer’s creditors.

One important NQDC tax issue is that payroll taxes are generally due once services have been performed and there’s no longer a substantial risk of forfeiture — even though compensation may not be paid or recognized for income tax purposes until much later. So your employer may withhold your portion of the payroll taxes from your salary or ask you to write a check for the liability. Or it may pay your portion, in which case you’ll have additional taxable income.

Warning: The additional 0.9% Medicare tax could also apply. Keep in mind that the rules for NQDC plans are tighter than they once were, and the penalties for noncompliance can be severe: You could be taxed on plan benefits at the time of vesting, and a 20% penalty and potential interest charges also could apply. So, check with your employer to make sure it’s addressing any compliance issues.