2023 Year-End Guide – Tax Accounting Methods
The tax accounting methods used by taxpayers play a crucial role in determining when income is recognized and costs are deducted for income tax purposes. By strategically adopting or changing these methods, individuals and businesses can unlock opportunities to save on taxes and increase their cash flow. However, navigating the rules surrounding the use and modification of accounting methods can be complex, and the process for making changes depends on whether the change is automatic or requires IRS consent. In many cases, taxpayers must apply to the IRS before the end of the year in which they wish to implement the method change.
December 31st Deadline for Non-auto Method Changes
Among the method changes that must be filed under the non-automatic change procedures are many changes to correct an impermissible method of recognizing liabilities under an accrual method (for example, using a reserve-type accrual), and long-term contract changes. Additionally, taxpayers who do not qualify to use the automatic change procedures because they have made a change concerning the same item within the past five tax years will need to file under the non-automatic change procedures to request their method change.
Generally, more information needs to be provided on Form 3115 for a non-automatic accounting method change, and the complexity of the issue and the taxpayer’s facts may increase the time needed to gather data and prepare the application. Taxpayers who wish to file non-automatic accounting method changes effective for 2023 should begin gathering the necessary information and prepare the application as soon as possible to avoid a last-minute rush.
Year-end Clean-up Items: Accelerate Common Deductions/Losses
Heading into year-end tax planning season, companies may be able to take some relatively easy steps to accelerate certain deductions into 2023 or, if more advantageous, defer certain deductions to one or more later years. The key reminder for all of the following year-end “clean-up” items is that the taxpayer must make the necessary revisions or take the necessary actions before the end of the 2023 taxable year. (Unless otherwise indicated, the following items discuss planning relevant to an accrual basis taxpayer.)
Deduction of accrued bonuses. In most circumstances, a taxpayer will want to deduct bonuses in the year they are earned (the service year), rather than the year the amounts are paid to the recipient employees. To accomplish this, taxpayers may wish to:
- Review bonus plans before year-end and consider changing the terms to eliminate any contingencies that can cause the bonus liability not to meet the Section 461 “all events test” as of the last day of the taxable year. Taxpayers may be able to implement strategies that allow for an accelerated deduction for tax purposes while retaining the employment requirement on the bonus payment date. These may include using (i) a “bonus pool” with a mechanism for reallocating forfeited bonuses back into the pool; or (ii) a “minimum bonus” strategy that allows some flexibility for the employer to retain a specified amount of forfeited bonuses.
The bonus pool amount must be fixed through a binding corporate action (e.g., board resolution) taken prior to year-end that specifies the pool amount, or through a formula that is fixed before the end of the tax year, taking into account financial data as of the end of the tax year. A change in the bonus plan would be considered a change in underlying facts, which would allow the taxpayer to prospectively adopt a new method of accounting without filing a Form 3115.
- Schedule bonus payments to recipients to be made no later than 2-1/2 months after the tax year end to meet the requirements of Section 404 for deduction in the service year.
Deduction of commission liabilities. Taxpayers with commission liabilities should consider taking the following actions prior to the end of the 2023 taxable year:
- Review commission agreements for needed revisions. By analyzing the terms of the arrangements, taxpayers can determine what event(s) must occur to fix the commission liability and meet the all events test under Section 461. Companies may consider revising commission agreements to remove contingencies or otherwise better align their business goals with deduction timing for tax purposes.
One example of a contingency associated with commission liability is a requirement that a customer remain a customer for a specified time before the employee/agent is entitled to a commission. In this case, the liability would not be considered fixed until the conclusion of the specified time, thereby precluding the taxpayer’s deduction of the commission liabilities before that date.
Consider the tax treatment of prepaid commissions and associated elections. For financial reporting purposes, many companies capitalize commissions paid to both employees and independent contractors, typically amortizing amounts over the same period as the related revenue stream under ASC 606. Tax requirements for capitalization of commissions and the timing of their deduction will differ based on the recipient of the commission and whether the recipient’s efforts to earn the commission facilitate the acquisition or creation of an intangible.
The Section 263(a) requirement to capitalize commissions as facilitative costs applies to commissions paid to third parties, including independent contractors, but employee compensation is exempt from this requirement. Thus, commissions paid to employees generally can be deducted in the year the commissions are incurred.
If the taxpayer prefers to capitalize commissions paid to employees, it may opt to do so by making an annual election. The flexibility to switch between deducting and capitalizing employee commissions each year provides a helpful planning opportunity for companies.
- Schedule accrued commission payments to employee recipients to be made no later than 2-1/2 months after the tax year-end. This timing is necessary to meet the requirements of Section 404 for a deduction in the service year. Accrued commissions to third parties (e.g., independent contractors) would generally be deductible in the year incurred.
Deductions of prepaid expenses. For federal income tax purposes, companies may have an opportunity to take a current deduction for some of the expenses they prepay, rather than capitalizing and amortizing the amounts over the term of the underlying agreement or taking a deduction at the time services are rendered.
A cash-basis taxpayer can generally deduct prepaid expenses in the year of actual payment as long as the prepaid expense meets an exception referred to as the “12-month rule.” Under the 12-month rule, taxpayers can deduct prepaid expenses in the year the amounts are paid (rather than having to capitalize and amortize the amounts over a future period) if the right/benefit associated with the prepayment does not extend beyond the earlier of i) 12 months after the first date on which the taxpayer realizes the right/benefit, or ii) the end of the taxable year following the year of payment. As taxpayers are required to meet the Section 461 all events test prior to applying the 12-month rule, accrual basis taxpayers must carefully examine the nature of their prepaid to determine whether there is a fixed and determinable liability and whether economic performance has occurred by year-end.
The rules provide some valuable options for accelerated deduction of prepaid for accrual basis companies – for example, insurance, taxes, government licensing fees, software maintenance contracts, and warranty-type service contracts. Identifying prepaid eligible for accelerated deduction under the tax rules can prove a worthwhile exercise by helping companies strategize whether to make prepayments before year-end, which may require a change in accounting method for the eligible prepaid.
Consider Methods Implications of Potential M&A Transactions
Taxpayers contemplating an acquisition, disposition, or other M&A transaction should consider the opportunities for accounting methods planning as well as any procedural requirements. Both buy-side and sell-side companies can benefit from proactively considering a transaction’s effects on existing accounting methods and related potential risk mitigation or planning strategies. Below are some examples of the opportunities to consider.
Final year restrictions. In general, automatic accounting method changes are not permitted in a taxpayer’s final year of a trade or business (e.g., when a taxpayer is acquired in a taxable asset acquisition). During the transaction process, taxpayers may contemplate certain changes in accounting methods, such as the correction of an impermissible method or a change in the overall method. It is important to carefully consider the structure of a transaction to determine if any accounting method changes are permitted or required.
If a transaction does not result in the cessation of a trade or business, taxpayers may want to plan for the timing of an accounting method change (i.e., whether the change is made pre- vs. post-transaction). For example, certain method changes may be qualified for accelerated taxable income adjustments in a pre-transaction period. By beginning the planning process early, taxpayers may be able to include beneficial terms in the agreement, such as limiting the pre-transaction realization of potential tax benefits to the sellers or requiring the sellers to correct potential exposure items.
Due diligence preparation. A taxpayer looking to sell part or all of a company may be able to use accounting methods to strengthen its profile in attracting potential buyers. A comprehensive accounting method review can uncover opportunities to mitigate potential risk and identify ways to achieve desired tax attributes well in advance of the formal due diligence process.
Post-transaction alignment. Acquisitive taxpayers should consider the impact of a transaction’s structure on the tax attributes — including the tax accounting methods — of acquired companies. In situations where the acquired company’s accounting methods carry over, accounting method changes can align the methods being used across the group to streamline the compliance process. Alternatively, transaction structures resulting in the adoption of new methods can provide opportunities to select methods that best align with the taxpayer’s tax objectives. Taxpayers able to adopt new methods may also benefit from the ability to establish methods that cannot be changed through the automatic procedures at a later date, such as certain percentage-of-completion methods under Section 460 or the 3-1/2 month rule for deducting certain prepaid services.
Review Leasing Transactions for Compliance with Tax Rules
The treatment of lease arrangements is a complex area due to many factors, including the diversity of lease structures, changing U.S. GAAP practices, and nuanced tax rules. In recent years, many companies have adopted ASC 842, the new GAAP standard governing lease accounting. The tax classification of an arrangement as a lease is independent of GAAP reporting, so the adoption of ASC 842 does not necessitate a tax accounting method change. However, given the changes in financial accounting practices, taxpayers adopting ASC 842 should perform a comprehensive tax review of their leases to ensure proper tax methods are maintained and to identify any tax accounting method changes that are needed.
A lease analysis for tax purposes generally focuses on the following three key areas:
The classification of an arrangement as a “true” tax lease is a highly facts-based analysis that should be performed on each lease a taxpayer enters. While an arrangement may be presented as a lease for legal and/or financial reporting purposes, the tax classification depends more on the substance of the arrangement than the form. Tax treatment as a lease versus the financing of a purchase, provision of services, or other arrangement is based broadly on the (1) benefits and burdens of ownership and (2) economic substance of the transaction.
Timing of income/deductions
Taxpayers with leases may fall into special methods of accounting under Section 467. In general, a taxpayer is subject to Section 467 if the lease meets all of the following criteria:
- The lease is for the use of tangible property;
- Total consideration paid under the lease exceeds $250,000; and
- The rent schedule provides for increasing/decreasing payments throughout the term of the lease and/or there is a rent allocation schedule that differs from the payment schedule.
In most cases, taxpayers subject to Section 467 should recognize rental income (lessor) or rent expense (lessee) in line with the payment schedule. However, Section 467 may require the use of a different method, such as the proportional rental accrual method. Taxpayers with leases that are not subject to Section 467 should look to their overall method of accounting to determine the timing of income and deductions.
By undertaking a tax analysis before entering into a new lease, taxpayers may be able to negotiate more favorable lease terms that help align the timing of income/deductions with their overall tax objectives.
Maintaining the proper method
As mentioned above, the adoption of ASC 842 for GAAP reporting purposes will likely change the way taxpayers compute existing book-to-tax adjustments. To ensure existing tax accounting methods are properly maintained, and to prevent errors or unauthorized method changes, taxpayers should ensure they understand any new lease-related balance sheet accounts and the appropriate tax treatment for such accounts.
Evaluate Accounting Method Changes for CFCs
Controlled foreign corporations (CFCs) are generally subject to the same requirements as U.S. taxpayers to use proper methods of accounting for tax purposes (for example, to calculate earnings and profits and to calculate tested income for GILTI). A CFC that has adopted an improper method of accounting or otherwise wishes to change an accounting method is required to file Form 3115.
A potential benefit of filing Form 3115 to correct an improper method is the ability to receive audit protection. If audit protection is granted, the IRS is precluded from challenging a taxpayer’s improper treatment for open tax years before the year of change. For CFCs or 10/50 corporations (foreign corporations with U.S. shareholders owning at least 10% but no more than 50%), however, audit protection may be denied for a tax year before the year the method change was requested under a “150% rule.” The 150% rule is met if one or more of the CFCs or the 10/50 corporation’s U.S. corporate shareholders report deemed paid foreign taxes for that year that exceed 150% of the average deemed paid foreign taxes reported during the three prior tax years.
For the many CFCs that were subject to the transition tax imposed under Section 965, the 150% rule denying audit protection may have disincentivized them from filing method changes to correct improper accounting methods. Affected taxpayers may now find themselves clear of the rule for the 2023 or 2024 tax year and should consider filing method changes to clean up their impermissible methods prospectively. Some of the more common, automatic method changes that CFCs may encounter include the following:
- Changing from computing depreciation under the General Depreciation System (GDS) to the Alternative Depreciation System (ADS);
- Switching to either the full inclusion method or the one-year deferral method for advance payments;
- Changing to a proper Section 461 method to deduct liabilities such as bonuses and commissions in the year the liability is fixed and amounts are paid within 2-1/2 months of year-end; and
- Complying with Section 263A and adopting the U.S. ratio method to capitalize costs to ending inventory.
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