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New Deferral Election for Qualified Equity Grants

Code Sec. 83 governs the amount and timing of income inclusion for property, including employer stock, transferred to an employee in connection with the performance of services. Under Code Sec. 83(a), an employee must generally recognize income for the tax year in which the employee's right to the stock is transferable or isn't subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture. The amount includible in income is the excess of the stock's fair market value at the time of substantial vesting over the amount, if any, paid by the employee for the stock.

New Law. Generally effective with respect to stock attributable to options exercised or restricted stock units (RSUs) settled after Dec. 31, 2017 (subject to a transition rule; see below), a qualified employee can elect to defer, for income tax purposes, recognition of the amount of income attributable to qualified stock transferred to the employee by the employer. The election applies only for income tax purposes; the application of FICA and FUTA is not affected.

The election must be made no later than 30 days after the first time the employee's right to the stock is substantially vested or is transferable, whichever occurs earlier. If the election is made, the income has to be included in the employee's income for the tax year that includes the earliest of:

(1) The first date the qualified stock becomes transferable, including, solely for this purpose, transferable to the employer.

(2) The date the employee first becomes an “excluded employee” (i.e., an individual: (a) who is one-percent owner of the corporation at any time during the 10 preceding calendar years; (b) who is, or has been at any prior time, the chief executive officer or chief financial officer of the corporation or an individual acting in either capacity; (c) who is a family member of an individual described in (a) or (b); or (d) who has been one of the four highest compensated officers of the corporation for any of the 10 preceding tax years.

(3) the first date on which any stock of the employer becomes readily tradable on an established securities market;

(4) the date five years after the first date the employee's right to the stock becomes substantially vested; or

(5) the date on which the employee revokes his or her election. (Code Sec. 83(i)(1)(B), as amended by Act Sec. 13603(a))

The election is available for “qualified stock” (defined in Code Sec. 83(i)(2)(A), as amended by Act Sec. 13603(a)) attributable to a statutory option. In such a case, the option is not treated as a statutory option, and the rules relating to statutory options and related stock do not apply. In addition, an arrangement under which an employee may receive qualified stock is not treated as a nonqualified deferred compensation plan solely because of an employee's inclusion deferral election or ability to make the election.

Deferred income inclusion also applies for purposes of the employer's deduction of the amount of income attributable to the qualified stock. That is, if an employee makes the election, the employer's deduction is deferred until the employer's tax year in which or with which ends the tax year of the employee for which the amount is included in the employee's income as described in (1) - (5) above.

The new election applies for qualified stock of an eligible corporation. A corporation is treated as such for a tax year if: (1) no stock of the employer corporation (or any predecessor) is readily tradable on an established securities market during any preceding calendar year, and (2) the corporation has a written plan under which, in the calendar year, not less than 80% of all employees who provide services to the corporation in the US (or any US possession) are granted stock options, or restricted stock units (RSUs), with the same rights and privileges to receive qualified stock. (Code Sec. 83(i)(2)(C), as amended by Act Sec. 13603(a))

Detailed employer notice, withholding, and reporting requirements also apply with regard to the election. (Code Sec. 83(i)(6), as amended by Act Sec. 13603(a))

As noted above, the income deferral election generally applies with respect to stock attributable to options exercised or RSUs settled after Dec. 31, 2017. However, under a transition rule, until IRS issues regs or other guidance implementing the 80% and employer notice requirements under the provision, a corporation will be treated as complying with those requirements if it complies with a reasonable good faith interpretation of them. The penalty for a failure to provide the notice required under the provision applies to failures after Dec. 31, 2017.