Our practice serves a number of early and mid-stage technology clients and many have significant research and development (“R&D”) activities and expenses but have not generated taxable income either due to tax planning or net operating losses. Conventional wisdom has been that these companies cannot claim any tax benefits related to their R&D related expenses because they have no taxable income. However, these same clients often pay significant payroll taxes and they are often unaware that they can reduce their annual payroll taxes, and improve cash flow, by as much as $250,000 per year by taking advantage of the United States (“US”) R&D payroll tax credit.
Let us explain here how we help our qualifying clients claim these important benefits.
As noted, US businesses historically have not been able to use the traditional US R&D income tax credit in tax years where there was no regular US income tax liability. However, the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (“PATH”) Act of 2015 made very favorable changes to the research credit that help mitigate the impact of this limitation. In particular, PATH allows certain small businesses to offset their alternative minimum tax (“AMT”) or payroll tax liability with a research credit. As a result, small businesses in an AMT or net operating loss (“NOL”) position that cannot claim the traditional R&D credit can now claim tax and cash flow benefits.
The R&D Credit
The R&D credit was enacted back in 1981 to stimulate US R&D activities by helping businesses offset some of the costs associated with their qualified R&D activities. Quite basically, a qualified R&D activity expense qualifying for the credit is one where:
- The expense is incurred in a trade or business which represent R&D costs in the experimental or laboratory sense;
- The research is technical in nature including bioscience engineering, computer science including software, chemical/polymer design, manufacturing processes, and other similar activities;
- The research contains aspects of experimentation related to a new or improved design, function, or performance; and
- The research is intended to result in a new or improved product or business element for the taxpayer.
Today, there is a regular R&D credit and an alternative R&D simplified credit (“ASC”) option to calculate the benefits. Qualifying businesses can compare the two methods and choose the more favorable one by making an annual election on a timely filed federal return. Businesses that have not claimed a regular credit in a prior year may make the election on an amended return for that year.
PATH significantly expanded the R&D credit by allowing certain businesses to claim R&D tax benefits in years when they had no regular US income tax liability. In other words, before 2015, if a business didn’t have US taxable income, there was no way to claim an R&D credit. Now, the R&D credit can be used to reduce AMT or payroll tax liabilities.
Although AMT liabilities may also be reduced, our discussion here will focus on the payroll tax R&D credit.
Which Businesses Qualify For Payroll Tax R&D Credits
In order for a business to offset its payroll tax liability with the R&D credit, the taxpayer must be a Qualified Small Business (“QSB”). A QSB may be a corporation, partnership, or even an individual with gross receipts of less than $5 million for the current tax year and no gross receipts for any tax year preceding the five tax year period ending with the current tax year.
Example: For the first five years of its existence, Corporation A had gross receipts of $1,000,000, $7,000,000, $4,000,000, $3,000,000, and $4,000,000. Corporation A is a QSB for year 5 because its gross receipts are less than $5,000,000, even though its gross receipts exceeded the limitation for a prior year. However, Corporation A is not a QSB in year 6 due to having gross receipts in year 1.
Gross receipts here are reduced by returns and allowances but also include non-sales related items such as interest, dividends, rents, royalties. These receipts must also be adjusted to account for predecessor entities meaning that past mergers and acquisitions are relevant to this calculation. One must also adjust for any entities or individuals treated as a single taxpayer meaning that gross receipts must be aggregated for a controlled group of corporations or for trades or businesses under common control.
A QSB may elect to claim the R&D credit against the Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (“OASDI”) portion of the employer’s Federal Insurance Contributions Act (“FICA”) payroll tax liability for up to five tax years. The election to claim the payroll R&D credit must be made on a timely filed US tax return including extensions (please note this differs from the regular R&D credit which can be claimed on an amended return). The election is reported in Section D of Form 6765 as part of the aforementioned return. Special rules apply for partnerships and S corporations.
The election must indicate the amount of the research credit that the QSB intends to apply to the expected payroll tax liability. This amount is the smaller of:
- A $250,000 cap;
- The amount of the research credit for the tax year (without regard to the election); or
- The amount of any business credit carryforward under IRC §39 carried from the tax year of the election, without regard to the election, but only for QSBs that are not partnerships or S corporations.
A QSB that files quarterly payroll tax returns may apply the credit on its payroll tax return for the first quarter beginning after it files the federal return appropriately reflecting the election. For these quarterly payroll taxpayers, a QSB seeking benefits related to 2019 R&D activities that files that timely files their US income tax return by April 15, 2020 will be able to claim these benefits beginning in the second quarter of 2020 but not before. If the return is extended, then the timing of the benefits extends as well. Accordingly, a QSB that files annual payroll tax returns may apply the credit on the first quarter beginning after the date on which the business files its US income tax return containing the election.
When filing the payroll tax return, Form 8974, Qualified Small Business Payroll Tax Credit for Increasing Research Activities, must be completed and attached to the payroll tax return to ensure that the amount of the previously elected credit is limited to the employer portion of the Social Security tax for the period. Any excess may be carried forward pursuant to future periods. The credit does not reduce the QSB’s deduction for payroll taxes which provides an additional benefit.
The best next steps for any start-up with R&D activities is to take the following steps along with a qualified tax adviser:
- Determine qualification as a QSB;
- Identify qualifying research activities;
- Calculate the amount of the R&D credit and the corresponding payroll tax offset;
- Make the appropriate elections and file the requisite income tax and payroll tax forms using the most beneficial methodologies; and
- Organize supporting documentation in case of a tax authority examination.
In summary, any tech start-up not claiming these cash flow benefits should be paying attention.
Frank J. Vari, JD, MTax, CPA is the practice leader of FJV Tax which is a CPA firm specializing in complex international and U.S. tax planning. FJV Tax has offices in Wellesley and Boston. The author can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone at 617-770-7286/800-685-2324. You can learn more about FJV Tax at fjvtax.com.