Last year’s Tax Reform created a new 20-percent deduction of qualified business income for passthrough entities, subject to certain limitations. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) ( P.L. 115-97) created the new Code Sec. 199A passthrough deduction for noncorporate taxpayers, effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017. However, the provision was enacted only temporarily through 2025. The controversial deduction has remained a buzzing topic of debate among lawmakers, tax policy experts, and stakeholders. In addition to its impermanence, the new passthrough deduction’s ambiguous statutory language has created many questions for taxpayers and practitioners.
The IRS released the much-anticipated proposed regulations on the new passthrough deduction, REG-107892-18, on August 8. The guidance has generated a mixed reaction on Capitol Hill, and while significant questions may have been answered, it appears that many remain. Indeed, an IRS spokesperson told Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting before the regulations were released that the IRS’s goal was to issue complete regulations but that the guidance “would not cover every question that taxpayers have.”
Wolters Kluwer recently spoke with Joshua Wu, member, Clark Hill PLC, about the tax implications of the new passthrough deduction and proposed regulations. That exchange included a discussion of the impact that the new law and IRS guidance, both present and future, may have on taxpayers and tax practitioners.
I. Qualified Business Income and Activities
Wolters Kluwer: What is the effect of the proposed regulations requiring that qualified business activities meet the Code Sec. 162 trade or business standard? And for what industries might this be problematic?
Joshua Wu: The positive aspect of incorporating the Section 162 trade or business standard is that there is an established body of case law and administrative guidance with respect to what activities qualify as a trade or business. However, the test under Section 162 is factually-specific and requires an analysis of each situation. Sometimes courts reach different results with respect to activities constituting a trade or business. For example, gamblers have been denied trade or business status in numerous cases. In Groetzinger, 87-1 ustc ¶9191, 480 U.S. 23 (1987), the Court held that whether professional gambling is a trade or business depends on whether the taxpayer can show he pursued gambling full-time, in good faith, regularly and continuously, and possessed a sincere profit motive. Some courts have held that the gambling activity must be full-time, from 60 to 80 hours per week, while others have questioned whether the full-time inquiry is a mandatory prerequisite or permissive factor to determine whether the taxpayer’s gambling activity is a trade or business. See e.g., Tschetschot , 93 TCM 914, Dec. 56,840(M)(2007). Although Section 162 provides a built-in body of law, plenty of questions remain.
Aside from the gambling industry, the real estate industry will continue to face some uncertainty over what constitutes a trade or business under Code Secs. 162 and 199A. The proposed regulations provide a helpful rule, where the rental or licensing of tangible or intangible property to a related trade or business is treated as a trade or business if the rental or licensing and the other trade or business are commonly controlled. But, that rule does not help taxpayers in the rental industry with no ties to another trade or business. The question remains whether a taxpayer renting out a single-family home or a small group of apartments is engaged in a trade or business for purposes of Code Secs. 162 and 199A. Some case law indicates that just receiving rent with nothing more may not constitute a trade or business. On the other hand, numerous cases have found that managing property and collecting rent can constitute a trade or business. Given the potential tax savings at issue, I suspect there will be additional cases in the real estate industry regarding the level of activity required for the leasing of property to be considered a trade or business.
Qualified Business Income
Wolters Kluwer: How does the IRS define qualified business income (QBI)?
Joshua Wu: QBI is the net amount of effectively connected qualified items of income, gain, deduction, and loss from any qualified trade or business. Certain items are excluded from QBI, such as capital gains/losses, certain dividends, and interest income. Proposed Reg. §1.199A-3(b) provides further clarity on QBI. Most importantly, they provide that a passthrough with multiple trades or businesses must allocate items of QBI to such trades or businesses based on a reasonable and consistent method that clearly reflects income and expenses. The passthrough may use a different reasonable method for different items of income, gain, deduction, and loss, but the overall combination of methods must also be reasonable based on all facts and circumstances. Further, the books and records must be consistent with allocations under the method chosen. The proposed regulations provide no specific guidance or examples of what a reasonable allocation looks like. Thus, taxpayers are left to determine what constitutes a reasonable allocation.
Unadjusted Basis Immediately after Acquisition
Wolters Kluwer: What effect does the unadjusted basis immediately after acquisition (UBIA) of qualified property attributable to a trade or business have on determining QBI?
Joshua Wu: For taxpayers above the taxable income threshold amounts, $157,500 (single or married filing separate) or $315,000 (married filing jointly), the Code limits the taxpayer’s 199A deduction based on (i) the amount of W-2 wages paid with respect to the trade or business, and/or (ii) the unadjusted basis immediately after acquisition (UBIA) of qualified property held for use in the trade or business.
Where a business pays little or no wages, and the taxpayer is above the income thresholds, the best way to maximize the deduction is to look to the UBIA of qualified property. Rather than the 50 percent of W-2 wages limitation, Section 199A provides an alternative limit based on 25 percent of W-2 wages and 2.5 percent of UBIA qualified property. The Code and proposed regulations define UBIA qualified property as tangible, depreciable property which is held by and available for use in the qualified trade or business at the close of the tax year, which is used at any point during the tax year in the production of qualified business income, and the depreciable period for which has not ended before the close of the tax year. The proposed regulations helpfully clarify that UBIA is not reduced for taxpayers who take advantage of the expanded bonus depreciation allowance or any Section 179expensing.
De Minimis Exception
Wolters Kluwer: How is the specified service trade or business (SSTB) limitation clarified under the proposed regulations? And how does the de minimis exception apply?
Joshua Wu: The proposed regulations provide helpful guidance on the definition of a SSTB and avoid what some practitioners feared would be an expansive and amorphous area of section 199A. Under the statute, if a trade or business is an SSTB, its items are not taken into account for the 199A computation. Thus, the performance of services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial and brokerage services, investment management, trading, dealing in securities, and any trade or business where the principal asset of such is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees or owners, do not result in a 199A deduction.
There is a de minimis exception to the general rule for taxpayers with taxable income of less than $157,500 (single or married filing separate) or $315,000 (married filing jointly). Once those thresholds are hit, the 199A deduction phases-out until it is fully eliminated at $207,500 (single) or $415,000 (joint).
The proposed regulations provide guidance for each of the SSTB fields. Importantly, they also limit the “reputation or skill” category. The proposed regulations state that the “reputation or skill” clause was intended to describe a “narrow set of trades or businesses, not otherwise covered by the enumerated specified services.” Thus, the proposed regulations limit this definition to cases where the business receives income from endorsing products or services, licensing or receiving income for use of an individual’s image, likeness, name, signature, voice, trademark, etc., or receiving appearance fees. This narrow definition is unlikely to impact most taxpayers.
II. Aggregation, Winners & Losers
Wolters Kluwer: How do the proposed regulations provide both limitations and flexibility regarding the available election to aggregate trades or businesses?
Joshua Wu: Treasury agreed with various comments that some level of aggregation should be permitted to account for the legal, economic and other non-tax reasons that taxpayers operate a single business across multiple entities. Permissive aggregation allows taxpayers the benefit of combining trades or businesses for applying the W-2 wage limitation, potentially resulting in a higher limit. Under Proposed Reg. §1.199A-4, aggregation is allowed but not required. To use this method, the business must (1) qualify as a trade or business, (2) have common ownership, (3) not be a SSTB, and (4) demonstrate that the businesses are part of a larger, integrated trade or business (for individuals and trusts). The proposed regulations give businesses the benefits of electing aggregation without having to restructure the businesses from a legal standpoint. Businesses failing to qualify under the above test will have to consider whether a legal restructuring would be possible.
Wolters Kluwer: How does Notice 2018-64 Methods for Calculating W-2 Wages for Purposes of Section 199A, which accompanied the release of the proposed regulations, coordinate with aggregation?
Joshua Wu: Notice 2018-64 contains a proposed revenue procedure with guidance on three methods for calculating W-2 wages for purposes of section 199A. The Unmodified Box method uses the lesser of totals in Box 1 of Forms W-2 or Box 5 (Medicare wages). The Modified Box 1 method takes the total amounts in Box 1 of Forms W-2 minus amounts not wages for income withholding purposes, and adding total amounts in Box 12 (deferrals). The Tracking wages method is the most complex and tracks total wages subject to income tax withholding. The calculation method is dependent on the group of Forms W-2 included in the computation and, thus, will vary depending upon whether businesses are aggregated under §1.199A-4 or not. Taxpayers with businesses generating little or no Medicare wages may consider aggregating with businesses that report significant wages in Box 1 that are still subject to income tax withholding. Under the Modified Box 1 method, that may result in a higher wage limitation.
Crack & Pack
Wolters Kluwer: What noteworthy anti-abuse safeguards did the proposed regulations seek to establish? How do the rules address “cracking” or “crack and pack” strategies?
Joshua Wu: Treasury included some anti-abuse provisions in the proposed regulations. One area that Treasury noted was the use of multiple non-grantor trusts to avoid the income threshold limitations on the 199A deduction. Taxpayers could theoretically use multiple non-grantor trusts to increase the 199A deduction by taking advantage of each trust’s separate threshold amount. The proposed regulations, under the authority of 643(f), provide that two or more trusts will be aggregated and treated as a single trust if such trusts have substantially the same grantor(s) and substantially the same primary beneficiary or beneficiaries, and if a principal purpose is to avoid tax. The proposed regulations have a presumption of a principal purpose of avoiding tax if the structure results in a significant tax benefit, unless there is a significant non-tax purpose that could not have been achieved without the creation of the trusts.
Another anti-abuse issue relates to the “crack and pack” strategies. These strategies involve a business that is limited in its 199A deduction because it is an SSTB spinning off some of its business or assets to an entity that is not an SSTB and could claim the 199A deduction. For example, a law firm that owns its building could transfer the building to a separate entity and lease it back. The law firm is an SSTB and, thus, is subject to the 199A limitations. However, the real estate entity is not an SSTB and can generate a 199A deduction (based on the rental income) for the law partners. The proposed regulations provide that a SSTB includes any business with 50 percent common ownership (direct or indirect) that provides 80 percent or more of its property or services to an excluded trade or business. Also, if a trade or business shares 50 percent or more common ownership with an SSTB, to the extent that trade or business provides property or services to the commonly-owned SSTB, the portion of the property or services provided to the SSTB will be treated as an SSTB. The proposed regulations provide an example of a dentist who owns a dental practice and also owns an office building. The dentist rents half the building to the dental practice and half to unrelated persons. Under [Proposed Reg.] §1.199A-5(c)(2), the renting of half of the building to the dental practice will be treated as an SSTB.
Winners & Losers
Wolters Kluwer: Generally, what industries can be seen as “winners” and “losers” in light of the proposed regulations?
Joshua Wu: The most obvious “losers” in the proposed regulations are the specified services businesses (e.g., lawyers, accountants, doctors, etc.) who are further limited by the anti-abuse provisions in arranging their affairs to try and benefit from 199A. On the other hand, certain specific service providers benefit from the proposed regulations. For example, health clubs or spas are exempt from the SSTB limitation. Additionally, broadcasters of performing arts, real estate agents, real estate brokers, loan officers, ticket brokers, and art brokers are all exempt from the SSTB limitation.
Wolters Kluwer: What areas of the Code Sec. 199A provision stand out as most complex when calculating the deduction, and how does this complexity vary among taxpayers?
Joshua Wu: With respect to calculating the deduction, one complex area is planning to maximize the W-2 wages limitation. Because compensation as W-2 wages can reduce QBI, and potentially the 199A deduction, determining the efficient equilibrium point between having enough W-2 wages to limit the impact of the wage limitation, while preserving QBI, will be a fact-driven complex planning issue that must be determined by each taxpayer. Another area of complexity will be how taxpayers track losses which may reduce future QBI and, thus, the 199A deduction. The proposed regulations provide that losses disallowed for taxable years beginning before January 1, 2018, are not taken into account for purposes of computing QBI in a later taxable year. Taxpayers will be left to track pre-2018 and post-2018 losses and determine if a loss in a particular tax year reduces QBI or not.
III. Looking Ahead
Wolters Kluwer: An IRS spokesperson told Wolters Kluwer that the IRS did not expect the proposed regulations to answer all questions surrounding the deduction. Indeed, Acting IRS Commissioner David Kautter has said that stakeholder feedback would help finalize the regulations. What significant questions remain unanswered for taxpayers and tax practitioners, and has additional uncertainty been created with the release of the IRS guidance?
Joshua Wu: On the whole, the proposed regulations did a good job addressing the most important areas of Section 199A. However, there are many areas where additional guidance would be helpful. Such guidance may be in the form of additional regulations or other administrative pathways. For example, the proposed regulations did not address the differing treatment between a taxpayer operating as a sole proprietor versus an S corporation. Wages paid to an S corporation shareholder boosts the W-2 limitation but are not considered QBI. Thus, with the same underlying facts, the 199Adeduction may vary between taxpayers operating as a sole proprietor versus those operating as an S corporation.
Possible Changes to Proposed Regulations
Wolters Kluwer: In what ways do you see the passthrough deduction rules changing when the final regulations are released?
Joshua Wu: I suspect that the core components of the proposed regulations will not change significantly. However, I would not be surprised if Treasury were to include more specific examples with respect to real estate and whether certain types of activity constitute a trade or business. Additionally, the proposed regulations will likely generate comments and questions from various industry groups related to the SSTB definitions and specific types of services (e.g., do trustees and executors fall under the legal services definition). Treasury may change the definitions of SSTBs in response to comments and clarify definitions for industry groups.
Tax Reform 2.0
Wolters Kluwer: The White House and congressional Republicans are currently moving forward on legislative efforts known as “Tax Reform 2.0.” The legislative package proposes making permanent the passthrough deduction. How does the impermanence of this deduction currently impact taxpayers? (Note: On September 13, the House Ways and Means Committee marked up a three-bill Tax Reform 2.0 package. The measure is expected to reach the House floor for a full chamber vote by the end of September.)
Joshua Wu: The 199A deduction has a significant impact on the choice of entity question for businesses. With the 21 percent corporate rate, we have seen many taxpayers considering restructuring away from passthrough entities to a C corporation structure. The 199A deduction is a large consideration in whether to restructure or not, but its limited effective time does raise questions about the cost effectiveness of planning to obtain the 199A deduction where the benefit will sunset in eight years.
Wolters Kluwer: Aside from advice on specific taxpayer situations, what key takeaways should tax practitioners generally alert clients to ahead of the 2019 tax filing season?
Wolters Kluwer: Aside from advice on specific taxpayer situations, what key takeaways should tax practitioners generally alert clients to ahead of the 2019 tax filing season?
Joshua Wu: Practitioners should remind clients who may benefit from the 199A deduction to keep detailed records of any losses for each line of business, as this may impact the calculation of QBI in the future. Practitioners should also help clients examine the whole of their activity to define their “trades or businesses.” This will be essential to calculating the 199A deduction and planning to maximize any such deduction. Finally, practitioners should remember that some of the information that may be necessary to determine a 199A deduction may not be in their client’s possession. Practitioners need to plan in advance with their clients regarding how information about each trade or business will be obtained (e.g., how will a limited partner in a partnership obtain information regarding the partnership’s W-2 wages and/or UBIA of qualified property).
Wolters Kluwer: Any closing thoughts or comments?
Joshua Wu: Practitioners and taxpayers should remember that the regulations are only proposed and may change before they become final. Any planning undertaken this year should carefully weigh the economic costs and be rooted in the statutory language of 199A. It will be some time before case law helps clarify the nuances of Section 199A, and claiming the deduction allows the IRS to more easily impose the substantial understatement penalty if a taxpayer gets it wrong.