The Internal Revenue Service is warning businesses and tax professionals to be alert to a range of compliance issues that can be associated with Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs).
“The IRS is focusing on this transaction as part of the effort to ensure our tax laws are applied fairly and high-income filers pay the taxes they owe,” IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel said. “This means spotting aggressive tax claims as they emerge and warning taxpayers. Businesses and individual taxpayers should seek advice from an independent and trusted tax professional instead of promoters focused on marketing questionable transactions that could lead to bigger trouble.”
Werfel noted the IRS is working to ensure high-income filers pay the taxes they owe. Prior to the Inflation Reduction Act, more than a decade of budget cuts prevented IRS from keeping pace with the increasingly complicated set of tools that the wealthiest taxpayers may use to hide their income and evade paying their share.
“The IRS is now taking swift and aggressive action to close this gap,” Werfel said. “Part of that includes alerting higher-income taxpayers and businesses to compliance issues and aggressive schemes involving complex or questionable transactions, including those involving ESOPs.”
ESOPs are retirement plans that allow employees to own stock in their employer’s company. Any company that has stock can sponsor an ESOP for its employees as long as the ESOP invests primarily in the securities of the employer. ESOPs can be complex arrangements since the ESOP can borrow funds from the employer or a third party to purchase shares of the employer.
In light of the complexity of ESOPs, the IRS has and will continue to undertake enforcement strategies to ensure compliance with tax law requirements by employers sponsoring an ESOP. In its current compliance efforts, the IRS has identified numerous issues, such as valuation issues with employee stock; prohibited allocation of shares to disqualified persons; and failure to follow tax law requirements for ESOP loans causing the loan to be a prohibited transaction.
Additionally, the IRS has seen promoted arrangements using ESOPs that are potentially abusive. For instance, the IRS has seen schemes where a business creates a “management” S corporation whose stock is wholly owned by an ESOP for the sole purpose of diverting taxable business income to the ESOP. The S corporation purports to provide loans to the business owners in the amount of the business income to avoid taxation of that income. The IRS disagrees with how taxpayers interpret this transaction and emphasizes that these purported loans should be taxable income to the business owners. These transactions also impact whether the ESOP satisfies several tax law requirements which could result in the management company losing its S corporation status.
Over the next year, the IRS will continue to use a range of compliance tools, including education, outreach and additional examinations to address compliance issues associated with ESOPs.