Contractors, advisers, and employees (collectively, “Service Providers”) who receive property that is non-transferrable or subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture must generally defer their income recognition until those conditions no longer apply. However, due to the potential appreciation in the property (for example, in value of start-up equity) the ordinary income ultimately recognized could be significantly greater than the initial value. The Service Provider may be able to significantly reduce their taxes, and the employer may create a significant compensation incentive, if the Service Providers make the election under Internal Revenue Code Section 83(b) to recognize the income currently, notwithstanding the forfeiture risks. Timing of this election is critical as it must be made within 30 days after the property is transferred to the Service Provider.
Under Internal Revenue Code 83(a), Service Providers who receive property (including equity interests) for their services that are non-transferrable or subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture are required to pay, at the date the interests vest, income tax on the excess of the fair market value of the property over the amount paid for the property. If the fair market value of the property increases between the grant and vesting of the interests, Service Providers will pay an income tax on the greater value, and possibly at a higher marginal rate too. A Section 83(b) election may be the perfect tool for Service Providers to convert immediate ordinary income into deferred long term capital gains.
The downside of the election is that the income is recognized even though the risk of forfeiture still exists. If the risk materializes and the property goes down in value, or becomes worthless, there is no deduction to the Service Provider. They are stuck with paying income tax on property that is potentially worthless.
These risk/reward tradeoffs highlight the advantage of using this election for compensating employees of start-up ventures, typically with equity subject to vesting. In this case, the current value of the equity is limited, so there is little or no income to report (and pay tax on) currently. If the equity goes down in value, or is forfeited, the employee has not wasted tax payments. However, if the equity increases in value, as the parties hope, then the employee will be able to report this value at the more favorable capital gains rates instead of ordinary rates. The Section 83(b) election can make a start-up equity grant a much more effective inducement to attract new employees, by putting more money into the pocket of the employee.
But remember, taking advantage of the Section 83(b) elections requires a filing by the Service Provider within 30 days after the grant of property. The law does not want to allow the Service Provider to see which way the value is moving. The election, and the commitment to property must be made up front.
Service Providers should contact an attorney or other tax professional when deciding whether or not to make a Section 83(b) election. Additionally, issuers and companies should contact Cole Schotz P.C. before granting equity or other compensation.