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For several years, Citizens for Tax Justice has raised the alarm about a payroll tax loophole that allows many self-employed people, including two former lawmakers, John Edwards and Newt Gingrich, to use “S corporations” to avoid payroll taxes. Unfortunately, Congress passed up an opportunity to address this loophole as part of health care reform. Despite a few recent court decisions in favor of the IRS’s attempts to slightly restrict this loophole, it will continue to be a problem until Congress takes our advice and closes it.

The IRS and Tax Court Lets Some Self-Employed People Avoid Social Security and Payroll Taxes — Unless They Go Too Far

Payroll taxes are supposed to be paid on income from work. The Social Security payroll tax is paid on the first $113,700 in earnings (adjusted each year) and the Medicare payroll tax is paid on all earnings. These rules are supposed to apply both to wage-earners and self-employed people.

“S corporations” are essentially partnerships, except that they enjoy limited liability, like regular corporations. The owners of both types of businesses are subject to income tax on their share of the profits, and there is no corporate level tax. But the tax laws treat owners of S corporations quite differently from partners when it comes to Social Security and Medicare taxes. Partners are subject to these taxes on all of their “active” income, while active S corporation owners are supposed to determine what salary they would pay themselves if they treated themselves as employees.

Naturally, many S corporation owners make up a salary for themselves that is much less than their true work income.

The Tax Court recently found that a California man named Sean McAlary attempted to do this in 2006 with an S corporation. He was the sole owner of the company, and he had only a handful of other real estate agents working sporadically for him (as independent contractors).

In 2006, McAlary, through his S corporation, had net income (income left after paying the other agents and paying other expenses) of $231,453. McAlary, who worked 60 hours a week at his company, initially did not report any of this income as compensation for work. And thus he paid no payroll taxes on it. When the IRS challenged him, he later claimed that only $24,000 was compensation for work. The other 90 percent, he said, was profit, not subject to Social Security or Medicare tax.

Logically, one would think that all of the net income of the company was income from work, since it all stemmed from McAlary’s efforts in selling real estate (and to a slight degree, from managing his sales agents).

But the IRS and the Tax Court totally missed the point. First, the IRS decided that less than half of McAlary’s income, only $100,755, was earned income. It came to this figure by multiplying what it guessed should be McLary’s hourly wage times the number of hours he worked. The Tax Court adjusted that down to $83,200 by making up a slightly lower average hourly wage.

Imagine if such a rule applied to ordinary wage earners. “So you were paid $75,000,” the IRS might say, “but you claim you were only worth half that much. Well, you have a point, but we’d say you were worth $50,000.”

By engaging in such fictions, the IRS and the Tax Court go to absurd lengths to give Subchapter S owners a tax break — just not as absurd as the numbers that many of the owners make up.

Medicare Tax Reform Was Missed Opportunity to Close Loophole

Two famous politicians have gained notoriety for low-balling their work income from Subchapter S corporations. The first was former Senator John Edwards, who actually claimed that his name was an asset, and that this asset (rather than his labor) was generating most of the income from his one-man law firm. The second was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose tax returns released during the 2012 Republican primary demonstrated that he, too, took advantage of this dicey tax dodge.

In 2009, as members of Congress considered revenue-raising proposals to pay for health care reform, they eventually looked at an idea from Citizens for Tax Justice to reform the Medicare tax. We proposed that the Medicare tax, which was a flat-rate tax on wages, should have a higher rate for higher-income workers and that Congress create a matching Medicare tax applying to investment income (excluding retirement income) for people above a certain income threshold.

We assumed that if our proposal was adopted, then what was called the “John Edward Loophole” (and later called the “Newt Gingrich Loophole”) would be closed. Essentially all income over a certain threshold (not counting retirement income) would be subject to the Medicare tax one way or the other. Most of the disputes between the IRS and S corporation owners over how much of their income constitutes compensation would become unnecessary.

But Congress had other ideas. Although the health care law as enacted did include most of our proposal, an exception was made for “active income” of S corporations that the owners do not characterize as compensation for work.

This has created a strange situation in which wages and salary are subject to the Medicare tax and even most investment income (capital gains, dividends, interest, royalties, rents, to the extent they make up a taxpayer’s income in excess of $250,000 for married couples and $200,000 for singles) is, effectively, subject to the same tax. But “active income” that can be characterized as not wages and salary still escapes the tax, and thus taxpayers like McAlary still have an incentive to mischaracterize this income.

The most obvious and simplest solution would be for Congress to simply apply the Medicare tax to all “active income” of S corporations.

Some lawmakers have proposed a more limited solution that is overly complicated but which would at least solve part of the problem. Such legislation was first introduced as part of a tax “extenders” bill in 2010 (in order to offset some of the cost of those tax breaks) and a version has been introduced this year by Congressman Charlie Rangel. This legislation would address situations in which an S corporation provides a service and generates most of its profits based on the reputation or skills of three or fewer people. If this rule had been in place, Edwards and Gingrich probably would not have been able to avoid their Medicare taxes. But it might have left the courts to deal with cases like McAlary’s (because his business arguably relied on the skills and reputation of more than three people).