In my experience, a lot of people don’t pay enough attention to their Subchapter S Corporations until tax time, when it’s sometimes too late to correct errors or oversights.
You formed the S Corp because of the benefits you would get from it, so it would be a shame to operate it in such a sloppy way that you could miss out on some of those benefits. Please take a moment to be sure you are following these guidelines, and make any necessary changes before the end of the year.
Reasons for forming an S Corp generally include:
- Reducing payroll taxes on a portion of your income
- Retirement contributions in excess of the limits on IRAs and 401(k) plans
- Deduction of health insurance costs
- Limited liability
I will discuss these items briefly below, then move on to some other relevant thoughts.
W-2s and Payroll Taxes
Generally speaking, your S Corp does not pay tax, but rather the income “passes through” to your personal tax return. This pass-through income is taxed at your regular rates, but it is not subject to the federal and state payroll taxes you would pay if you were an employee.
It is important to note that a shareholder of an S Corp is not self-employed, but is actually an employee of the company. As such, you are required to pay yourself a reasonable salary, a term that is not clearly defined, but is intended to prevent shareholders from entirely avoiding Social Security, Medicare and other payroll taxes. One way to look at it is that you should pay yourself what it would cost to hire someone to do your job.
Your salary is treated as a deduction by the company, so you aren’t taxed twice. You pay payroll taxes on your salary, but you don’t pay payroll taxes on the remainder of the S Corp’s income after deducting your salary. That’s one of the benefits of an S Corp.
Action required: Pay yourself a salary, and issue a W-2 at the end of the year. I suggest you use a payroll service to be sure you are in full compliance with the complex rules and regulations surrounding payroll. Do this before the end of the year.
As an S Corp owner, you have a choice of retirement plans that you can establish. One of the most popular plans is a Simplified Employee Pension, or SEP. An advantage of a SEP plan is that the company can contribute a percentage of your salary, up to a maximum contribution of $54,000. This is substantially higher than the limits for IRAs and 401(k) plans. Do be aware, though, that you also have to offer the plan to your other eligible employees, and contribute the same percentage on their behalf. This is a specialized and complex area, so you should speak with a knowledgeable professional on the subject.
It is important to note again that as an S Corp shareholder, you are not self-employed, but rather an employee of the company. The retirement plan must be created in the name of the company, not yourself, and the contributions are made by the company. Contributions are deductible from the company’s income of course.
Action required: You can establish a SEP retirement plan any time during the year, or up to the date when the company’s tax return is due (even if you file for an extension). Other types of retirement plans may have different rules, so be sure to investigate before the end of the year.
As an S Corp shareholder, you can deduct health insurance costs for yourself and your family directly on your tax return. But there is a special process for doing so, and it is important that you follow it. The company must pay for your health insurance. It is acceptable to have the insurance in your own name and make the payments yourself, but you need to have the company reimburse you, and deduct the expense.
Health insurance paid by the company is considered compensation to you, and must be added to your salary on your W-2 at the end of the year. You will not pay payroll tax on this amount, but it must be included in gross earnings. You then deduct the amount directly on your personal tax return.
It seems a bit convoluted, but those are the rules.
Action required: Be sure to have the company reimburse you for medical insurance payments before the end of the year, and be sure to instruct your payroll service to include it on your W-2. If the payroll service gives you trouble, ask to speak to a supervisor… they do this for thousands of people every year.
To ensure that your S Corp offers limited liability you need to be disciplined in the way you operate it. Without going into depth, you need to establish that it is a separate entity, and not just an extension of your own personal finances. That includes keeping a separate bank account and credit cards, maintaining careful accounting records and keeping up to date with your state’s filing requirements.
Action required: Check that you are following the appropriate discipline to ensure your company is a separate entity.
Estimated Tax Payments
We are required to make payments during the year of the amount of tax we estimate owing for the whole year. This is easy for the salary you pay yourself, because you are expected to withhold and pay federal and state tax from each paycheck.
The issue here is the tax you expect to pay on the company’s earnings that pass through to your personal return. Depending on your situation, these amounts can be substantial, and to add insult to injury, there are penalties for underpayment of estimated tax.
Action required: Speak with your tax professional at least once during the year, to be sure you are making appropriate estimated tax payments.
State and Local Tax Registration
Many cities have tax filing requirements, and it can be annoying and expensive if you haven’t met their requirements. Los Angeles, for example, assesses tax on income above a specified level, but also has a requirement to register for a business license and renew it every year.
If you are operating outside the state in which you registered the company, you need to check on filing requirements. California, for example, is very aggressive about finding and taxing out-of-state businesses that do business there.
Action required: Learn the filing requirements, and follow them. They will find you if you don’t.
Auto Expense and Home Office
The S Corp can own a car, and deduct any allowable business expenses, but you may find it easier to keep the car in your own name, and submit for reimbursement any business mileage, documenting the locations, distances and business purpose of each trip. You would complete form 2106 on your personal return, and deduct the reimbursement. I often find it convenient and preferable to use the IRS standard mileage rate where eligible – it’s 53.5 cents per mile in 2017.
Similarly, assuming you meet the rigorous and very specific requirements, you can deduct an expense for the business use of your home office. Again, submit expense reports for reimbursement, detailing the square footage of your office space and the total size of your home, in addition to specific allocated costs such as rent, mortgage, utilities, etc.
Action required: Submit detailed expense reports, and have the company reimburse you. Do this before the end of the year.
An S Corporation can be a very useful business format, but there are rules that need to be followed to ensure you get all the appropriate benefits. And remember that an S Corp is not necessarily the best entity for you, depending on your situation and your objectives.
As always, speak to a tax professional before acting… and after!