(Jan. 24, 2011): Weekend Wall Street Journal,
The most recent Tax Report, on executive pay and payroll taxes, ... was about a court case, David E. Watson, P.C. v. USA. Mr. Watson is an Iowa CPA with decades of experience, and the IRS challenged his $24,000-a-year salaries for 2002 and 2003 as too low. The judge agreed with the IRS and raised it to $90,044.
Payroll taxes, not income taxes, were at issue. The IRS said that by keeping his salary artificially low, Mr. Watson was minimizing the 12.4% FICA tax (up to a cap) and the 2.9% Medicare tax (unlimited), saving about $20,000. Other accountants said clients often hope to cut payroll taxes by low-balling pay.
Several readers asked whether the issue in Watson is what caused controversy for John Edwards, the former senator and vice-presidential candidate. The short answer is yes. Sen. Edwards was unavailable for comment for this story, but asserted during the 2004 campaign that he had done nothing improper.
Other readers wondered what happens when Steve Jobs or Vikram Pandit takes a token $1 a year in pay. Does the IRS challenge that salary for being too low as well?
The answer is no. ...Mr. Jobs's $1-a-year pay doesn't pose a problem for the IRS because Apple is a "C" corporation, not a "Subchapter S" corporation, as Mr. Watson's was. ... With C corporations, the compensation issue is actually the opposite of Mr. Watson's: The IRS gets upset when pay is too high rather than too low. That is because C corps get an important tax deduction for executive pay. If it is too high, a firm may be disguising a nondeductible dividend payout as tax-deductible compensation—especially if the firm has an owner who is a large shareholder. ....
Things are very different for workers whose pay comes from "carried interest," i.e. profit participations that are common at hedge funds, private-equity firms, and real-estate firms. In that case the pay can qualify as a capital gain—taxed at current top rates of 15% instead of 35% for most pay—and also isn't subject to payroll taxes ... This treatment has been a sore subject with some in Congress recently, but the law hasn't changed.
A final note: Last year's health-care changes are up in the air, but taxpayers should know they contain a Medicare tax increase of 0.9% on wages above $250,000 for married couples and $200,000 for singles for 2013 and after. That brings the total Medicare tax to 3.8%.
People who try to lower pay and raise dividends to escape Medicare tax should be aware that the law also imposes a 3.8% tax on investment income. The tax applies at the same $250,000/$200,000 level, and it applies to dividends, possibly erasing any tax saving.