The IRS may object to the compensation of a C corporation shareholder-employee. If it’s deemed too high — or not “reasonable” under the circumstances — the IRS could force you to make adjustments that increase taxes.

This can be particularly troublesome for C corporation owners and executives who are also shareholders, because they’ll then be hit with double taxation.

When double taxation comes into play

When a C-corporation distributes profits as salaries, the firm gets a deduction for the amount. The owner or executive pays personal income tax on the money, of course, but it’s only taxed once. But if the C-corporation pays the owner or executive dividends, the money is taxed twice — once at the corporate level, because the corporation cannot deduct the dividend payments — and again at the personal level.

Compensation must be reasonable. If the IRS considers compensation too high, it can label part of the payments as “disguised dividends,” which are taxed twice. This reclassification could increase corporate taxable income, causing back corporate income taxes plus penalties and interest.

What’s considered reasonable for a shareholder-employee?

There’s no simple formula for determining a reasonable salary. The IRS will look at the amounts that similar corporations pay their employees for comparable services. Some of the other factors it considers are the employee’s duties, experience, expertise and hours worked.

Not surprisingly, the issue of reasonable compensation frequently winds up in court. To protect yourself, spell out the reasons for compensation amounts in your corporate minutes. The minutes should be reviewed by a tax professional before being finalized. Cite any executive compensation or industry studies, as well as other reasons why the compensation is reasonable.

If your business is profitable, you should generally pay at least some dividends. By doing so, you avoid the impression that the corporation is trying to pay out all profits as compensation. We can help determine whether dividends should be paid and, if so, how much they should be.

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This blog post is designed to provide information about complex areas of tax law. The information contained in this blog post may change as a result of new tax legislation, Treasury Department regulations, Internal Revenue Service interpretations, or Judicial interpretations of existing tax law. This blog post is not intended to provide legal, accounting, or other professional services, and is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional services.

This blog post should not be used as a substitute for professional advice. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent tax advisor should be sought.