Electing S Corp status for your LLC

Since we usually get a number of questions regarding the impacts of an LLC electing to be taxed as an S Corporation we thought it would be beneficial to address some of these issues.

An LLC is a legal structure, not a tax structure.  For tax purposes an LLC is “diregarded”.  Basically meaning that we pretend as if it does not exist.  So, an LLC with two or more owners, it will be classified as a partnership for tax purposes, and if it has only one owner, the entity will be disregarded for tax purposes and report as a sole proprietorship.  However, the LLC may elect to be taxed as either and S Corporation or a C Corporation.

The regulations allow an LLC that would be classified as a partnership or a disregarded entity under the default rules to elect to be taxed like a corporation. Corporate status is achieved by filing Form 8832, Entity Classification Election, electing to treat the entity as an “association.” An association is treated as a corporation for federal income tax purposes. Once the LLC elects association status, its owner(s) may also choose to have it taxed as an S corporation. To simplify the election process in such cases, it is not necessary to file both Form 8832 to elect association status and Form 2553 to elect S corporation status. The Regulations allow a single election to be made on Form 2553. A timely filed Form 2553 will constitute a deemed filing of Form 8832. This deemed association election is effective only if the electing entity meets all of the requirements to be an S corporation. Form 2553 also is not effective if the entity fails to qualify as an S corporation as of the election date.

While not required of the LLC form, most LLC entities begin their life with an operating agreement prepared by a business attorney. As most LLC entities default to partnership tax treatment, a standard form operating agreement will contain language addressing the federal income tax issues that one typically sees with a partnership. A variety of provisions in a standard form operating agreement must be reviewed before an S election is made for an LLC. Many of these typical LLC operating agreement provisions are not permitted if the entity is to be taxed as an S corporation.

S corporations are subject to specific eligibility rules under the tax laws, including the requirement that the corporation have a single class of stock (SCOS). Generally, a second class of stock will exist if shareholder equity rights differ with respect to distribution rights and liquidation rights. This does not apply to voting rights. Also, all allocations of profit and loss must follow share ownership. The operating agreement, must be examined to determine if there are differences in liquidation or distribution rights. The standard LLC operating agreement, not designed for an entity taxed as an S corporation, will have no reference to “stock” ownership.  Priorities on cash distributions, or provisions that require distributions on liquidation of a member’s interest to follow capital accounts, would also violate the SCOS requirement. These concerns must be addressed with modifications to the operating agreement.

The most significant modification to the standard operating agreement would be to provide that no member has priority over any other member with respect to distributions, either during operations or upon liquidation of a member’s interest. This would require deletion of any references to capital accounts.

It will also be necessary to eliminate the standard references to allocations for pre-contribution or pre-admittance. Any preference or guaranteed returns for capital will also need to be eliminated, with all distributions following only member ownership interests. Of course, it is also necessary to define ownership interests, which will replace the stock ownership of a corporation. Members may define ownership in such a way that it is the economic equivalent of stock ownership, forming the basis for satisfying the SCOS requirement. It is common for LLC operating agreements to provide for capital calls, with remedies available when one (or more) member fails to timely make a capital call. Similar provisions may be incorporated into an agreement of an entity that plans to be an S corporation, with the remedy being changes in the defined ownership interests of members who default on calls, forcing others to make up for the defaulting member. The revised ownership interests would continue to form the basis for allocations of profit and loss and for post-change distribution rights, as is required by the SCOS requirement. Similarly, a buy-sell or redemption agreement incorporated into the operating agreement (or a side agreement) needs to be tested for compliance with safe harbors regulations.

As is the case with an S corporation formed under state corporate law, members of an LLC electing S status may be paid different amounts for the services they provide to the entity and may receive payments for property leased to the entity or money loaned to the entity. The standard approaches used to protect against violations of a second class of stock with such arrangements should be considered when designing the capital structure of the entity.

The agreement may also include language often found in S corporation shareholder agreements to prevent a termination of the election, such as restricting transfers to ineligible shareholders, permitting an examination of any trusts for compliance with the eligible shareholder requirement, and perhaps a general statement that the members understand that the entity is to be taxed under subchapter S and will act in accordance with that intent.

The Regulations state that a timely election under Subchapter S is a deemed association election, provided that, at the effective date of the election, the entity meets all other requirements to be an S corporation. The Code further  notes that if the eligible entity’s S election is not timely and valid, the default classification rules  will apply to the entity unless IRS provides late S corporation election relief or inadvertent invalid election relief. The default status would then be a partnership if the LLC has two or more members, or a disregarded entity if it has only one owner.

For those taxpayers following the simplified election procedure, the (defective) S election would have been filed using only Form 2553. However, Regulations and the instructions to Form 8832, require it to be attached to the entity’s return for the year that the association election is to be effective. This copy need not be signed. Failure to attach Form 8832 does not invalidate the election, but may subject the non-filer to penalties.

It is not clear if one should attach a “dummy” Form 8832 to the entity’s initial Form 1120S when it was never originally filed. The regulations seem to open the door to this approach by stating that the copy of Form 8832 attached to the return need not be signed. If Form 8832 was actually filed, a copy of that original filing would include the signatures required for that form to constitute an effective association election. If, however, Form 8832 was not filed due to use of the simplified filing procedures, it would not be possible to file a copy of it, but one could prepare a Form 8832, without signature (the signature consents to the elective status indicated on Form 8832), to attach to the return. Presumably a non-signed form would not (independent of Form 2553) be effective as an entity association election. Thus, even if the LLC owners attached an unsigned dummy Form 8832 to the initial Form 1120S filing, that form alone should not be effective to establish association status for the entity. This issue would be significant because the failure to qualify as an S corporation would make the entity a C corporation if the Form 8832 attached to the initial return was deemed to be an association election. The status should otherwise default to a partnership.

The most obvious approach to use when electing S corporation status for an LLC is to review the operating agreement and make suggestions to change any provisions inconsistent with subchapter S. However, understanding that the obvious approach is either not always obvious or is not always followed, you need to consider the fallback treatment of an entity that has filed a defective Form 2553.

If a Form 8832 was never filed in any manner, including as an unsigned attachment to the initial Form 1120S, the entity classification would, as previously stated, default to the classification rules. If the only Form 8832 filed was as an attachment to Form 1120S, it could be reasonably argued that, even if the form was signed, the election would not be effective in the manner filed. At worst, it could be effective only prospectively because it must be filed within the first 75 days of the tax year for which it is to be effective. Late election relief may be available, but only on the taxpayer’s request, which would not be done when no association treatment was desired. If unsigned, which would likely be the case for a Form 8832 prepared solely as an attachment, it would be difficult for the IRS to argue successfully that the entity had elected association status. The default classification status would then apply to the LLC. Many advisors do not file a Form 8832 with the entity’s return when the form was not previously filed to elect association status affirmatively. For those who choose to attach a Form 8832 to the original Form 1120S, the form should not be signed (which is permitted by the regulations).

It is clear that flow-through entities are the most popular form of business entity in the U.S., but what is less clear is whether the S corporation or the partnership form is best suited for a particular business venture. Without addressing the “proper” choice, this article focuses on the mechanics of treating an entity formed as a state law LLC as an S corporation for federal tax purposes and ways to avoid potential traps. These include needed revisions to a standard operating agreement as well as compliance with the election mechanics. If a taxpayer undertakes the election mechanics without first modifying the operating agreement, the resulting entity may be a partnership or a C corporation. How the election is made may offer a safeguard in the event it is later discovered that an eligibility failure occurred.

If you have any questions regarding the election to an S Corporation or the right tax structure for you, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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