S Corporations and Salaries: An IRS Hot Button Issue

The IRS has stepped up its scrutiny of salary versus distributions with S corp employees.

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An S corporation (also called a Subchapter S corporation) is a small corporation that has elected to be taxed much the same as a partnership by the IRS. An S corporation is a pass-through entity—income and losses pass through the corporation to the owners’ personal tax returns. Many small business owners use S corporations. One of the biggest reasons is that an S corporation can save a business owner Social Security and Medicare taxes. However, this has become a hot button issue for the IRS.

An S corporation shareholder who performs more than minor services for the corporation will be its employee for tax purposes, as well as a shareholder. In effect, an active shareholder in a S corporation wears at least two hats: as a shareholder (owner) of the corporation, and as an employee of that corporation. This allows for savings on Social Security and Medicare taxes because such taxes need not be paid on distributions of earnings and profits from the corporation to its shareholders. Thus, to the extent they pay themselves shareholder distributions instead of employee salary, S corporation shareholder/employees can save big money on payroll taxes.

It’s up to the people who run an S corporation—its officers and directors—to decide how much salary to pay the corporation’s employees. When you are employed by an S corporation that you own (alone or with others), you’ll be the one making this decision. In fact, 70% of all S corporations are owned by just one person, so the owner has complete discretion to decide on his or her salary.

However, an S corporation must pay reasonable employee compensation (subject to employment taxes) to a shareholder-employee in return for the services the employee provides before a distribution (not subject to employment taxes) may be given to the shareholder-employee.

Unfortunately, many S corporation owners have gone overboard and had their corporations pay them no employee compensation at all, thus avoiding having to pay any payroll taxes. The IRS Inspector General found that in 2000 about 440,000 single shareholder S corporations paid no salary to their owners, costing the government billions in lost payroll taxes. As a result the IRS stepped up enforcement on this issue and audited thousands of S corps that paid their owners little or no salary.

If the IRS concludes that an S corporation owner has attempted to evade payroll taxes by disguising employee salary as corporate distributions, it can recharacterize the distributions as salary and require payment of employment taxes and penalties which can include payroll tax penalties of up to 100% plus negligence penalties. The IRS will do so if it concludes that the corporation paid the employee unreasonably low compensation for his or her services. For example, a CPA who incorporated his practice took a $24,000 annual salary from his S corporation and received $220,000 in dividends which were free of employment taxes. The IRS said that his salary was unreasonably low and that $175,000 of the dividends should be treated as wages subject to employment taxes. The court upheld the IRS’s power to recharacterize the dividends as wages subject to employment tax. (Watson v. United States, (DC IA 05/27/2010) 105 AFTR 2d ¶ 2010–908.)

Thus, as a general rule, it is advisable to have your S corporation pay you at least some salary--which can be on the low end of the reasonableness scale. How low can you go and still pay yourself a reasonable salary? There are no precise guidelines. IRS officials have stated that they make the determination on a case-by-case basis. Among the factors the IRS and courts consider are:

  • the duties performed by the employee
  • the volume of business handled
  • the type of work and amount of responsibility
  • the complexity of the business
  • the time and effort devoted to the business
  • the timing and manner of paying bonuses to key people
  • use of a formula to determine compensation
  • the cost of living in the locality
  • the ability and achievements of the individual employee performing the service
  • the pay compared with the gross and net income of the business, as well as with distributions to shareholders
  • the company’s policy regarding pay for all employees, and
  • the payment history for each employee.
After examining all the circumstances, they establish a range of reasonable salaries, from low to high. In one case, the IRS concluded that a reasonable salary for an Arkansas certified public accountant was $45,000 to $49,000. The accountant in that case had paid himself no salary and received $83,000 in corporate distributions. The IRS used salary information from a large financial services recruiting firm to determine what was reasonable. (Barron v. Comm’r, T.C. Summ. 2001-10.) Some IRS offices have software that provides salary information for a variety of occupations throughout the country.

For detailed guidance on this issue, see Tax Deductions for Professionals, by Stephen Fishman (Nolo).


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