Wall Street Journal, Joe Biden Used Tax-Code Loophole Obama Tried to Plug:
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden used a tax loophole that the Obama administration tried and failed to close, substantially lowering his tax bill.
Mr. Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, routed their book and speech income through S corporations, according to tax returns the couple released this week. They paid income taxes on those profits, but the strategy let the couple avoid the 3.8% self-employment tax they would have paid had they been compensated directly instead of through the S corporations.
The tax savings were as much as $500,000, compared to what the Bidens would have owed if paid directly or if the Obama proposal had become law.
“There’s no reason for these to be in an S corp—none, other than to save on self-employment tax,” said Tony Nitti, an accountant at RubinBrown LLP who reviewed the returns.
The technique is known in tax circles as the Gingrich-Edwards loophole—for former presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and John Edwards, a Democrat—whose tax strategies were scrutinized and drew calls for policy changes years ago. Other prominent politicians, including former President Barack Obama and fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, as well as current contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, received their book or speech income differently and paid self-employment taxes. ...
The U.S. imposes a 3.8% tax on high-income households—defined as individuals making above $200,000 and married couples making above $250,000. Wage earners have part of the tax taken out of their paychecks and pay part of it on their returns. Self-employed business owners have to pay it, too. People with investment earnings pay a 3.8% tax as well.
But people with profits from their active involvement in businesses can declare those earnings to be neither compensation nor investment income. The Obama administration proposed closing that gap by requiring all such income to be subject to a 3.8% tax, and it was the largest item on a list of “loophole closers” in a plan Mr. Obama released during his last year in office. The administration estimated that proposal, which didn’t advance in Congress, would have raised $272 billion from 2017 through 2026.
Under current law, S-corporation owners can legally avoid paying the 3.8% tax on their profits as long as they pay themselves “reasonable compensation” that is subject to regular payroll taxes. S corporations are a commonly used form for closely held businesses in which the profits flow through to the owners’ individual tax returns and are taxed there instead of at the business level.
The difficulty is in defining reasonable compensation, and the IRS has had mixed success in challenging business owners on the issue. The Bidens’ S corporations—CelticCapri Corp. and Giacoppa Corp.—reported more than $13 million in combined profits in 2017 and 2018 that weren’t subject to the self-employment tax, while those companies paid them less than $800,000 in salary.
If the entire amount were considered compensation, the Bidens could owe about $500,000. An IRS inquiry might reach a conclusion somewhat short of that. ...
To the extent that the Bidens’ profits came directly from the couple’s consulting and public speaking, “to treat those as other than compensation is pretty aggressive,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, a research group run by a former Obama administration official.
Mr. Nitti said he uses a “call in sick” rule for his clients trying to navigate the reasonable-compensation question: If the owner called in sick, how much money could the company still make?
“The reasonable comp standard is a nebulous one,” Mr. Nitti said. “This is pretty cut and dried. If you’re speaking or writing a book, it’s all attributable to your efforts.”