New Tax Laws Affecting All Partnerships Starting January 1, 2018

While much of the recent news has focused on the proposed tax reform currently making its way through Congress, there are new mandatory laws affecting all partnerships starting in January 2018.

What is changing?

As you are aware, a partnership is a “flow-through” entity. In other words, the income from a partnership flows through to the individual partners, and they pay tax on the income.  Therefore, there is no tax assessed at the partner level. Under current (soon-to-be-old) law, in an examination, the IRS is required to keep each partner’s liability for partnership operations separate. This most often resulted in many, if not all, of the individual partner’s returns being examined as well.

In these new laws, Congress intended to make a streamlined, efficient system to examine partnerships and collect accessed deficiencies from them. As a result, the IRS may now collect tax at the partnership level as a result of an audit. The IRS will no longer need to keep track of individual partner’s tax liability.

While this sounds like an administrative home run, unfortunately, there are a few hidden issues with the new law.

Potential Pitfalls

First and foremost, the tax assessed to the partnership will be assessed at the highest income tax rate applicable. With the pending House bill, that would retain the 39.6% rate for individual taxpayers with over $1M in taxable income. The current Senate version has a top rate of 38.5% for individual taxpayers with over $1M in taxable income. Obviously, most owners of partnerships do not fall into these tax brackets. Therefore, settling deficiencies in examination at the partnership level will most likely be very costly.

Second, under the new law, any new partners to partnerships could pay tax on additional income assessed for when they were not a partner.  Since the tax deficiency is assessed at the partnership level as it exists at the time of assessment, current partners only will be burdened by that tax.

New Partnership Representative Must Be Designated

In addition to the above, the new law mandates all partnerships must designate a “partnership representative.”  This representative has very broad, and very powerful, responsibilities. A partnership representative does not need to be a partner in the partnership.  While an entity can be assigned as a representative, an individual must still be appointed to act on that entity’s behalf. This representative will have the power to bind the partnership and the individual partners.  Also, neither the IRS nor the partnership representative are required to notify the partners of partnership matters, including an examination. The representative will have ultimate authority with the IRS. If the partnership does not elect a partnership representative, the IRS will have the authority to designate one.

Potential to Elect Out

Certain eligible partnerships can decide annually if they wish to elect out of the new laws. If the partnership elects out of the new treatment, essentially, each partner will be responsible for his or her share of any deficiency assessed. If a partnership does not expressly elect out of the treatment on a timely filed tax return, it is required to conform to the new laws.

The elect out decision, if available, will obviously be made based on individual facts and circumstances. However, as a rule, partnerships with a smaller number of partners will want to strongly consider electing out. For example, a partnership with only four partners may want to elect out and most likely pay less tax on any deficiency assessed. Those four partners may be willing to tolerate the administrative burden.  However, a partnership with 50 partners may find it easier and less costly to pay the tax at the partnership level as opposed to each partner undergoing an audit.

What You Need to Do Immediately

All partnerships need to evaluate and amend their partnership agreement. Questions to be addressed in the agreement include:

  • Who appoints or removes the partnership representative?
  • What procedures should be implemented to limit the partnership representative’s authority within the partnership (i.e., establish a voting committee)?
  • When should the partnership representative give written notice to all of the partners in the case of certain events (audit notices, elections, )?
  • To what extent should the partnership representative exercise due diligence with respect to elections available?
  • Who is responsible for determining whether to elect out annually?
  • Should partners be precluded from transferring their interests in the partnership to ineligible partners?
  • If the partnership unintentionally fails one of the electing out criteria, what is the outcome?
  • Must partners who left the partnership reimburse the partnership for amounts owed for audit years in which they were partners?
  • Should new partners have to pay taxes related to a tax year they were not partners?
  • How to true-up partners when inequities exist among the partners as a result of paying the tax on the partnership level vs. the individual level.
  • How to fund the payment (i.e., partner capital contributions, cash reserve, financing, )
  • Should the Partnership Representative make a “push out” election if available?

As you can see, there are quite a few fiduciary responsibilities and duties of the partnership representative. Without guidance in the partnership agreement, the representative is at risk for a number of potential “self-interest” accusations and lawsuits. Such representatives should carefully consider an indemnification agreement if they decide to serve as a representative.

We encourage you to have a conversation with us as soon as possible to start addressing some of these issues in your partnership agreement. As always, we will help guide you through the implementation of these new regulations and work to put you in the best position possible in the event of an exam. Contact us online or call 215-723-4881.

Four Little Words Cost My Client over $55,000

“Details matter.” That’s what a client recently said as I was handing her a series of amended tax returns for 2014 and 2015 which included around $18,000 in additional taxes owed. Add to that a projection of an additional $37,000 owed for 2016. Why? Four words. Four little words cost my client over $55,000 in unexpected taxes, and I am helpless to do anything about it at this point.

“Details matter.” How simple, yet how profound.

The four words? “Tenants-by-the-entireties.” What does that even mean?

My client’s husband had 50/50 ownership of several rental properties with an unrelated partner. My client’s husband began to have failing health and passed away in 2014. Before his passing, they approached a lawyer to provide some estate planning.

Fortunately, the lawyer established an estate where shares of the partnership would be passed to the children and heirs. This not only kept the partnership from terminating upon my client’s husband’s death but it also meant the partnership was no longer a 50/50 split. Simply put, you need two people for a partnership. If one passes away, the partnership no longer has two individuals and therefore can’t exist. So the lawyer adequately addressed one concern by passing the partnership on to the children and heirs. However, he also did something else that he probably shouldn’t have done. He admitted the wife into the partnership as “tenants-by-the-entireties.” Those four words – “tenants by the entireties” – cost my client about $55,000.

When my client’s husband passed away, the partnership interest (aka ownership) would have automatically gone to his surviving spouse. The fair market value of the partnership interest would have passed through his estate, and his wife would have inherited the properties/partnership interest at full fair market value. So if the properties were sold the day after the husband’s passing, the wife wouldn’t pay a penny in federal income tax because it was handled through the estate.

What should have been a simple inheritance was complicated by the lawyer admitting the wife to the partnership, creating a tenancy by the entireties. From a tax perspective, she then owned 50% of her husband’s share and became ineligible to inherit the whole ownership at fair market value. She was only eligible to inherit half of it at fair market value. As a result, she had to pay taxes on her half of her husband’s share.

Communication is Key

While this is a very complicated area of tax law, the point of the story is this: Whether you have a multi-million-dollar business or as little as two rental properties, make sure your team is in communication with each other. Your accountant, lawyer, insurance agent, investment broker, etc., should all be on the same page. I recommend your accountant should be the “quarterback” guiding the team and identifying the “details” that matter.

It wasn’t until after we drafted the final partnership return in 2016 that we discovered the partnership agreement as it was revised. At that point, there was nothing we could do. While the lawyer did what he did to ease the transfer of ownership, it cost my client approximately $55,000.

Don’t be deceived into thinking this couldn’t happen to you. These particular clients weren’t “big clients with a lot of money.” There were only two rental properties. So please, hear my plea, and that of my clients: “Details matter.”

If you have questions about how your estate planning affects your tax situation, we’d be happy to help. Contact us or call 215-723-4881.


BrentThompson fromweb

Brent Thompson, CPA has been with Canon Capital since 1998. He provides management advisory services, tax and general business planning, tax preparation, and financial statement preparation and review services for numerous businesses and their owners. He holds the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation and a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designation. Brent is a member of the AICPA and the Institute of CMA’s.

This article is designed for general information only. The information presented should not be construed to be formal advice nor the formation of a client relationship.