Alert: A version of this bill was enacted as part of the Tax Cuts & Job Act, though with a five-year deferral period. See our blog commentary on the adopted legislation.
Stock options continue to be very popular at startups and other pre-IPO companies, where they are often broadly granted to most or all employees. While these options can have wealth-creating potential, one big challenge is lack of liquidity: employees cannot sell the stock at exercise to pay the exercise price and any taxes owed. As the IRS confirmed in regulations issued during 2014, the tax measurement date (at exercise for options and at vesting for restricted stock) is not delayed by any lack of liquidity or securities law restrictions on resales of stock.
The fact that the tax treatment for stock grants at pre-IPO and large publicly traded companies is identical seems oddly unfair when you consider the vastly differing liquidity situations of private and public companies. Seeking to address this imbalance, recently proposed bipartisan legislation could provide a new optional tax treatment (pun intended) and make stock options more appealing than ever at startups and other pre-IPO companies. Introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate on July 12, as explained by an article at The Hill, the Empowering Employees Through Stock Ownership Act seeks to give employees in privately held companies extra time to pay taxes on the income they recognize at exercise. The proposed extra time is considerable. Instead of paying taxes at exercise with nonqualified options (or at RSU vesting when settled in stock), this legislation would allow tax deferral for up to seven years.
Senators Mark Warner (D–VA) and Dean Heller (R–NV), members of the Senate Finance Committee, sponsored the bill in the Senate, while Representative Erik Paulsen (R–MN) is the sponsor in the House. In the press release supporting the bill, Sen. Warner states that "extending employee stock programs to a broader universe of workers will strengthen business growth and create new economic opportunities, especially for rank-and-file workers." For his part, Sen. Heller asserts that "it's important to give employees the flexibility to pay their taxes on stock options."
Company And Employee Requirements
To make the new deferral election available (under Section 83 of the Internal Revenue Code), a company would have to issue what the bill calls "Qualified Equity Grants." These grants would need to be made to at least 80% of the company's employees annually. The company would have to provide information or a warning about the tax impact, especially if the share price should decline, and it would be required to report future tax liability on each employee's Form W-2. Qualified grants would be unavailable to major owners, corporate officers, and the highest-paid executives.
Sounding in some ways similar to the procedure for the Section 83(b) election, the deferral election for qualified equity grants would need to be made by employees within 30 days of either when the shares became transferable or when they were no longer subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture, whichever occurred earlier. If the company were to go public or the employee were to sell the shares for cash during the seven-year period, taxes would have to be paid at the time of the liquidity event. The deferral election could also be revoked by the employee at any time, triggering taxes at that point.
Details Still Need To Be Worked Out
Open issues remain. A few questions that occurred to us:
- How, exactly, would these grants be structured?
- Why is the deferral for seven years?
- What information would be required in the election, and how would it be filed?
- How would this deferral election apply to early-exercise stock options that result in restricted stock which must then vest?
- Would Social Security and Medicare taxes be deferrable as well as income tax?
Nevertheless, this bill is a good way to start a discussion about changing the tax treatment of stock options and restricted stock units in startups and other pre-IPO companies. The approach of this legislation is more understandable than that of the Expanding Employee Ownership Act of 2016, which recently proposed another new type of stock option (covered at the end of a recent commentary elsewhere on this blog).