The IRS recently released an audit techniques guide (the “Guide”) to advise its internal auditors who are examining cases involving equity-based compensation (i.e., compensation based on the value of specified stock). Examples include stock transfers, stock options, stock warrants, restricted stock, restricted stock units, phantom stock plans and stock appreciation rights paid to an employee, director or independent contractor. The Guide provides a general discussion of potential tax issues that could arise with respect to these arrangements (e.g., disqualifying dispositions of incentive stock options, Code Section 83(b) elections for restricted stock). Interestingly, the Guide devotes a fair amount of detail to explaining where auditors may find these documents, encouraging them to review Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) filings as well as internal documents. As such, the Guide serves as an important reminder to employers to be mindful that the IRS (or other third parties) someday could seek to review their corporate documents. That will be the focus of this blog.
The Guide advises auditors that a good place to start an examination is by reviewing SEC documents (at least with respect to publicly-held entities). In particular, the Guide explains that a public company’s annual report (Form 10-K), definitive proxy statement (DEF 14A), and Statement of Changes in Beneficial Ownership (Form 4) can be particularly pertinent. These documents will identify the types of plans an employer sponsors and provide compensation data under the plans for the named executive officers and the directors. The Guide directs the IRS auditors to compare the compensation data on the SEC forms with information reported on the individual’s Form W-2 or 1099-MISC, as applicable, and confirm that the appropriate amount of taxes has been withheld and paid. If the information on the tax documents and SEC forms do not reconcile, the Guide recommends that the auditor consider expanding the scope of the audit.
The Guide also instructs auditors to review an employer’s internal corporate documents, including employment contracts, Board of Director meeting minutes and Compensation Committee meeting minutes. The Guide adds that auditors should request reports “issued by the compensation committee and presented to the board of directors” because these reports may provide additional insight into equity compensation practices.
Employers should be aware of these instructions. Often times, it is easy for someone to prepare internal documents using jargon or short-hand that is familiar among people at the company but that may be difficult to explain to a third party or worse could be misleading. The Guide demonstrates that internal documents may not be restricted to internal personnel. Instead, the IRS very well could review these internal documents. As such, employees and advisers who prepare these documents should be mindful of both the information contained in the documents and how they present that information.
Key Takeaways for Employers.
While the IRS prepared the Guide to assist its internal auditors, the Guide also helps employers understand how the IRS could conduct a potential audit of equity-based compensation plans. One takeaway for employers is to review its compensation practices and make sure that as a matter of substance they comply with the applicable tax rules. The other takeaway is a matter of form or style. Specifically, when employees of a company or its outside advisers prepare internal documents or documents to be filed with the SEC, they should keep in mind that the IRS very possibly will review some or all of these documents (particularly the SEC filings). Thus, when preparing these documents, they should do so in a way that demonstrates compliance with the applicable tax rules and that avoid any ambiguities. Doing so will help make a potential audit less burdensome and less risky.