Welcome to CPA at Law, helping individuals and small businesses plan for the future and keep what they have.

This is the personal blog of Sterling Olander, a Certified Public Accountant and Utah-licensed attorney. For over seven years, I have assisted clients with estate planning and administration, tax mitigation, tax controversies, small business planning, asset protection, and nonprofit law.

I write about any legal, tax, or technological information that I find interesting or useful in serving my clients. All ideas expressed herein are my own and don't constitute legal or tax advice.

Federal Tax Classifications for Business Entities

For federal tax classification purposes, a business is classified as either a "business entity," which is any entity recognized for federal tax purposes; or a "disregarded entity," which is any entity not recognized or treated separate from its owner for tax purposes. The most common federal tax business entities include a C-Corporation, S-Corporation, and Partnership. Various rules under the Internal Revenue Code determine how a business is treated for federal tax purposes.

The default tax classification for a corporate entity is a C-Corporation. Alternatively, a corporation can elect to be taxed as an S-Corporation by filing Form 2553 with the IRS and meeting certain requirements.

A single-member limited liability company is the only state-formed entity eligible to be classified as a disregarded entity; this is the default classification. The one exception is where a business is owned equally by a husband and wife in a community property state; this business can also be treated as a disregarded entity. A single-member LLC can also elect to be taxed as a C-Corporation by filing Form 8832 with the IRS; alternatively, it can elect to be taxed as an S-Corporation by filing Form 2553.

The default tax classification for non-corporate, multi-member legal entities (including LLCs and state-law partnerships) is a partnership. A multi-member business may elect to be taxed as a C-Corporation or an S-Corporation in the same manner as a single-member LLC. One of the prerequisites for S-Corporation status is a single class of interest, disregarding differences in voting rights; multi-member LLCs with one class of interest or general partnerships can meet the requirements to be treated as an S-Corporation.

The following chart summarizes these rules:

               State-Law Entity
 Corporation  Single-Member LLC Multi-Member Eligible Entity
 Disregarded   No   Yes   No* 
 Partnership (Form 1065)   No   No   Yes 
 C-Corporation (Form 1120)   Yes  Yes   Yes 
 S-Corporation (Form 1120S)   Yes   Yes   Yes**

*A business owned equally by a husband and wife in a community property state can be treated as a disregarded entity.
**Only certain entities, such as multi-member LLCs with one class of interest and general partnerships, can qualify for S-Corporation status.

Self-Employment Tax Avoidance for LLC Members

In addition to the income tax, sole proprietors and partners in a partnership must pay self-employment tax on net self-employment earnings. This tax is imposed on "active" trade or business income, as opposed to "passive" income from rents, interest, dividends, capital gains, and income of a limited partner in a partnership.

Corporations pay tax at the corporate level and accordingly, corporate net income is not subject to self-employment tax. As I wrote previously, S-Corporation earnings flow through to the individual shareholders' personal income tax returns and also avoids self-employment tax. A special set of rules applies to income generated by LLCs taxed as partnerships.

These rules come from Prop. Reg. 1.1402(a)-2(h)(2). Technically, these regulations are not binding since the IRS has not issued final regulations, but they are the only administrative guidance available, "they can be relied on to avoid a penalty under IRC section 6406(f), and there is judicial precedence, in Elkins [81 T.C. 669 (1983)], [to] reasonably conclude that the courts will sustain the position of a taxpayer who relies on proposed regulations." Janet Meade, Minimizing Self-Employment Tax of LLC Managing Members, The CPA Journal, June 2006.

Under the proposed regulations, an individual will be treated as a limited partner (and thus avoid self-employment tax) unless "the individual (1) has personal liability for the debts of or claims against the partnership by reason of being a partner; (2) has authority to contract on behalf of the partnership under the statute or law pursuant to which the partnership is organized; or, (3) participates in the partnership's trade or business for more than 500 hours during the taxable year." Individuals who provide health, law, engineering, architecture, accounting, actuarial science, or consulting services cannot take advantage of this rule.

Even if members of the LLC don't meet all of the above tests, self-employment taxes can still be avoided with respect to "amounts that are demonstrably returns on capital invested in the partnership." In general, in order to take advantage of the exceptions to the general rule, the LLC should be manager-managed and the operating agreement should provide for two classes of members, a managing class and an investor class.

The investor class will be treated as limited partners and the managing class will be treated as general partners for self-employment tax purposes. Members of the managing class can avoid self-employment tax on a portion of their share of the partnership's net income if their interests are bifurcated between the managing class and investor class interests. In other words, the "application of the SE tax to LLC members under the proposed regulations depends not only upon their formal status as members or managing-members but also on their level of participation in the entity" (Meade).