Most attorneys, accountants, and other professionals operate as unincorporated sole practitioners, or through partnerships and limited liability partnerships (LLPs), making them owners of pass-through entities. Such professionals may be able to cut the effective tax rate on the income from their practices through the use of the qualified business income (QBI) deduction (Code Sec. 199A). This deduction, which was created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, is up to 20% of QBI, but limitations and other rules can limit or prevent any write-off. Here are some key issues related to the QBI deduction for professionals in light of recently proposed regulations (REG-107892-18, released on 8/8/18 and published in the Federal Register on 8/16/18).
The deduction under Code Sec. 199A (QBI deduction) is a personal deduction claimed on an individual’s federal income tax return. It is neither a deduction in computing an individual’s adjusted gross income, nor is it an itemized deduction. The deduction does not reduce business income. Rules on the treatment of the QBI deduction for state income tax purposes depends on each state’s tax conformity with federal income tax rules and special state-level rules. It appears that in New York and New York City, the QBI deduction is not allowed because income taxes here starts with federal adjusted gross income (which does not include the QBI deduction). However, future guidance from the New York Department of Taxation and Finance could allow the deduction to be treated as an itemized amount for state and city income tax purposes.
The QBI deduction is 20% of qualified business income for a professional with taxable income up to $315,000 on a joint return or $157,500 on any other type of return. For example, a sole practitioner who is single and has taxable income of $125,000 can claim the full 20% of QBI deduction.
When the professional’s taxable income exceeds this threshold, then two limitations come into play:
General limitation. The deduction is the lesser of (1) 20% of QBI, or (2) the greater of (a) 50% of W-2 wages (“W-2 wages”), or (b) 25% of W-2 wages plus 2.5% of the unadjusted basis immediately after acquisition (“UBIA”) of qualified property.
Limitation for specified service trades or businesses (SSTBs) (defined below). The limitation under (b) for all types of businesses applies for married filing taxpayers filing joint returns whose taxable income is over $315,000, and other taxpayers whose taxable income is over $157,500. But for SSTBs, the amount of QBI that can be taken into account phases out over the next $100,000 for joint filers or $50,000 for other filers. In effect, a practitioner (and any other individual in an SSTB) with taxable income over $415,000 on a joint return or $207,500 on another type of return cannot take any QBI deduction; all of the QBI has been phased out.
For example, the partnership’s taxable income is less than the threshold amount, but each of the partnership’s individual partners have income that exceeds the threshold amount plus $50,000 ($100,000 in the case of a joint return). As a result, none of the partners may claim a QBI deduction with respect to any income from the partnership’s SSTB.
Qualified business income means the net amount of items of income, gain, deduction and loss attributable to the practice. Not taken into account are capital gains and losses (including Section 1231 gains), dividends, and interest income on working capital, reserves, and similar accounts (i.e., investment-type interest). However, interest income on accounts or notes receivable received is part of QBI.
QBI does not include guaranteed payments received for services performed for the practice (Code Sec. 707(c)). However, the partnership’s related expenses for making the guaranteed payments may nonetheless reduce QBI.
While guaranteed payments are not part of QBI, they do factor into the partners’ taxable income. Because taxable income limits or bars the QBI deduction, the impact of guaranteed payments needs to be taken into account.
Specified service trades or businesses
A specified service trade or business (SSTB) includes any trade or business involving the performance of services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial services, brokerage services, or any trade or business where the principal asset of such trade or business is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees; engineering and architecture are not included. Proposed regulations help to clarify what constitutes an SSTB. Here are the rules for law and accounting:
Law. This includes the provision of services by lawyers, paralegals, legal arbitrators, mediators, and similar professionals. It does not include the provision of services that do not require skills unique to the field of law; for example, the provision of services in the field of law does not include the provision of services by printers, delivery services, or stenography services.
Accounting. This includes the provision of services by accountants, enrolled agents, return preparers, financial auditors, and similar professionals in their capacity as such. The provision of services in the field of accounting is not limited to services requiring state licensure as a certified public accountant (CPA). The field of accounting does not include payment processing and billing analysis.
If professionals derive income from rentals of property to their partnerships, proposed regulations help to clarify when the income is or is not treated as an SSTB. In general, an SSBT includes any trade or business that provides 80% or more of its property or services to an SSBT if there is 50% or more common ownership (determined under Code Secs. 267(b) and 707(b)). If less than 80% is provided but there is that 50% common ownership, then that portion of the trade or business providing property or services to the commonly-owned SSTB is treated as part of the SSTB.
For example, a law firm that’s a partnership providing services to clients owns its own office building and employs administrative staff. The firm divides into three partnerships: Partnership 1 performs legal services to clients, Partnership 2 owns the building and rents it to the firm, and Partnership 3 employees the administrative staff through a contract with Partnership 1. All three partnerships are owned by the same individuals (the original firm partners). Because the common ownership test is met, all three partnerships are treated as one SSBT.
Figuring the QBI deduction
Again, the QBI deduction is applied at the professional’s level; it does not impact the practice’s income that is passed through to the owners. Thus, as stated earlier, it is the professional’s taxable income that determines the amount of the deduction. However, Schedule K-1 must report items needed by professionals to compute their deduction. More specifically, on Schedule K-1 of Form 1065, “other information” must include:
• Section 199A income (code Z)
• Section 199A W-2 wages (code AA)
• Section 199A unadjusted basis (code AB)
• Section 199A REIT dividends (code AC)
• Section 199A PTP income (code AD)
Special basis adjustments
Partnerships may make special basis adjustments under Code Sections 734(b) or 743(b). Proposed regulations provide that partnership special basis adjustments are not treated as separate qualified property (Reg. Sec. 1.199A-2(c)(1)(iii)). If the IRS had allowed the special basis adjustments to be treated as separate qualified property, then it could result in a duplication of UBIA if, for example, the fair market value of the property has not increased and its depreciable period has not ended.
Impact on self-employment tax
The QBI deduction does not reduce net earnings from self-employment for purposes of figuring self-employment tax. In effect, self-employment tax is figured as though there were no QBI deduction.
Some of the guidance from the proposed regulations may be changed when final regulations are released. Comments to the proposed regulations are being accepted no later than October 1, 2018. In the meantime, FAQs posted by the IRS (https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/tax-cuts-and-jobs-act-provision-11011-section-199a-deduction-for-qualified-business-income-faqs) help to clarify some of the rules for this important tax deduction.
Executive Editor Sidney Kess is CPA-attorney, speaker and author of hundreds of tax books. The AICPA established the Sidney Kess Award for Excellence in Continuing Education in his honor, best-known for lecturing to over 700,000 practitioners on tax. Kess is senior consultant for Citrin Cooperman, consulting editor to CCH and Of Counsel to Kostelanetz & Fink.