Year-End Planning For Restricted Stock, RSUs, And Performance Shares
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Tax Reporting For Stock Compensation: Understanding Form W-2, Form 3922, And Form 3921

The end of January is in sight. Along with snowflakes, personal tax-return documents are in the air—or rather, hopefully either in your safe possession or on their way to you. When you have stock compensation, tax-return documents and the information they contain can be confusing and hard to decipher.

Making Sense Of Form W-2 When Stock Compensation Is Reported

Employees who had income from stock compensation or an employee stock purchase plan in 2015 must understand where that income is reported on Form W-2 so that they can complete their tax returns properly. In the Tax Center at, we have a section of FAQs about Form W-2 reporting for stock compensation. Each one includes an annotated diagram of Form W-2 that clearly interprets this sometimes cryptic document.

Restricted Stock, RSUs, Performance Shares

The vesting of restricted stock, the share delivery from restricted stock units (RSUs), and the vesting of performance shares all prompt W-2 reporting of the income received. The treatment on the W-2 is essentially the same for all three grant types. Income is included in the following places:

  • Box 1: Wages, tips, and other compensation
  • Box 3: Social Security wages (to income ceiling)
  • Box 5: Medicare wages and tips
  • Box 16: State wages, tips, etc. (if applicable)
  • Box 18: Local wages, tips, etc. (if applicable)

To learn which boxes show the taxes withheld, and other reporting details for all three grant types, see the related FAQs, including annotated diagrams, in the Tax Center.

Alert: If you made a Section 83(b) election to be taxed on the value of restricted stock at grant, your W-2 for the year of grant, not vesting, will show the income and withholding.

Stock Options

If you exercised nonqualified stock options last year, the income you recognized at exercise will be reported on your W-2. The income from a nonqualified stock option (NQSO) exercise appears on the W-2 with other income in:

  • Box 1: Wages, tips, and other compensation
  • Box 3: Social Security wages (up to the income ceiling)
  • Box 5: Medicare wages and tips
  • Box 16: State wages, tips, etc. (if applicable)
  • Box 18: Local wages, tips, etc. (if applicable)
  • Box 12 (Code V)

That last item, Code V in Box 12, identifies the NQSO income included in Boxes 1, 3, and 5. For the places where the tax-withholding amount appears, see our FAQ on W-2 reporting for NQSOs. (The W-2 reporting is, by the way, identical for stock appreciation rights, with the exception that Code V is not used.)

With incentive stock options, the spread value appears on the W-2 only when you make what is technically called a disqualifying disposition, i.e. when you sell or gift the stock before you have met the required holding periods of one year from exercise and two years from grant. In that case, the income appears on the W-2 as compensation income. Unlike with NQSOs, your company does not withhold federal taxes on ISO exercises and no money is owed for Social Security and Medicare, even with a same-day sale or any later disqualifying dispositions. For the details of W-2 reporting for ISOs in this situation, see our FAQ on this topic in the Tax Center.

Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs)

The W-2 reporting for ESPP income depends on whether your company's ESPP is tax-qualified or not and, if it is tax-qualified, how long you hold the shares. For a nonqualified ESPP, there is withholding on the income you recognize at purchase, and the income and withholding are reported on your W-2 in a way resembling that for nonqualified stock options. With a tax-qualified ESPP, nothing appears on your W-2 until you sell the shares. The details of all three situations are clearly presented, with annotated diagrams, in the section on ESPP W-2s in the Tax Center at

Form 3922 For ESPPs And Form 3921 For ISOs

Form W-2 is not the only important piece of tax paperwork that companies are sending these days. In 2015, did you buy shares in your company's employee stock purchase plan (ESPP)? Did you exercise incentive stock options (ISOs)? If so, you should have by now received from your company either IRS Form 3922 (for ESPPs) or IRS Form 3921 (for ISOs). Companies must issue these forms to employees by the end of January, and they must also file them with the IRS (though the IRS filing need not occur until the end of March if it is electronic).

Alert: In 2016, the amount of the IRS penalty doubled for companies that file information returns late or fail to distribute the employee statements.

For employees, many companies issue the information on their own substitute statements instead of using the actual IRS forms. A substitute statement allows a company to aggregate all purchases or exercises in one form rather than issuing a separate IRS form for each transaction.

While Forms 3922 and 3921 may seem confusing at first glance, they are useful because they can help you gather information you will need to prepare your tax return. As the forms also ensure that the IRS has ample information about your ESPP purchases and ISO exercises, they mean that accurate and timely tax-return reporting is more important than ever.

Annotated Diagrams Of Forms 3922 And 3921

To help companies and participants understand these forms and the related tax rules, has an article and FAQ on Form 3922 for ESPPs and an article and FAQ on Form 3921 for ISOs. These include annotated examples of the forms that translate IRS jargon into understandable language. You will find this content in the ESPP and ISO tax sections of both and the Knowledge Centers that we license to companies and stock plan service providers.

Each ESPP purchase is reported on a separate Form 3922, which presents the following information:

  • date of grant (usually the beginning of the offering period)
  • stock FMV on the date of grant
  • purchase price per share
  • price per share had the grant date been the purchase date (for purchases where the purchase price was not fixed or determinable on the grant date)
  • purchase date
  • stock FMV on the purchase date
  • date of transfer of legal title
  • number of shares for which legal title is transferred

Each ISO exercise is reported on a separate Form 3921, which shows the following details:

  • grant date
  • exercise price per share
  • exercise date
  • the stock FMV on the exercise date
  • number of shares exercised

Sell Shares In 2015? The Fun Is Just Beginning

If you sold shares from stock compensation or an ESPP last year, you will need guidance to report the sale proceeds on your tax return. Fortunately, the Tax Center at features the section Reporting Company Stock Sales. Each FAQ in the section includes annotated diagrams of Form 8949 and Schedule D, the two crucial forms for stock-sale reporting. These FAQs clearly explain how the information on Forms W-2, 3922, and 3921 can help you accurately complete IRS Form 8949 when you prepare your tax return.

Resources For Stock Plan Participants And Companies

All of our tax-season content, including our popular annotated tax forms, is available for corporate licensing. Help your participants make the most of their stock compensation by giving them resources for avoiding expensive mistakes on tax returns.

The excellence of our resources is attested by the many testimonials we have received, so don't just take our word for it. As one of our licensees puts it, employees "find the tax information and annotated tax forms extremely helpful." In the words of another client, "employees understand concepts much better with the straightforward illustrations." Please contact us for licensing details (617-734-1979 or [email protected]).


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