Using an S corporation to reduce self-employment taxes – by splitting the income into a “reasonable compensation” salary and S corp dividends – is a popular strategy that financial advisors recommend to clients in a wide range of businesses. And in point of fact, it’s actually a viable strategy for financial advisors to use for their own advisory firms.
However, the recent Tax Court case of Fleischer v. Commissioner (TC Memo 2016-238) serves as a reminder that while advisory fees can be paid to an S corporation and partially passed through as a dividend to reduce taxation, the strategy does not work for insurance and investment commissions. In Fleischer’s case, the Tax Court invalidated his efforts to assign and transfer both his LPL investment commissions and MassMutual insurance commissions into his S corporation, finding instead that he should have claimed them as personal income on his Schedule C (and paid self-employment taxes on all of it).
The fundamental challenge is that, in order for a corporation to legitimately claim income, it has to actually control the contractual engagement to earn in the income. Which in the case of insurance and investment commissions, is generally impossible, because securities and state insurance laws require that commissions be paid directly to the individual. The only way an entity can legitimately receive the income is if the entity itself is registered as a broker-dealer or an insurance agency (and then contracts directly for the commission income), which alas may be common for an RIA but is usually not feasible for a broker-dealer or insurance agency due to regulatory and compliance costs.
Nonetheless, as the Fleischer case indicates, the fact that establishing a bona fide broker-dealer or insurance agency isn’t economically feasible in most cases doesn’t change the underlying requirement of the tax law – which is that if an individual earns income personally (including investment or insurance/annuity commissions), that person must report the income for tax purposes, and can’t simply transfer it into a business account and issue a 1099-MISC to the S corporation and expect it to be honored by the IRS!