Wolters Kluwer Interview: A Three-Part Series on the New Code Sec. 199A Passthrough Deduction and Proposed Regulations

Last year’s tax reform created a new 20-percent deduction of qualified business income for passthrough entities, subject to certain limitations. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) (P.L. 115-97) created the new Code Sec. 199A passthrough deduction for noncorporate taxpayers, effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017. However, the provision was enacted only temporarily through 2025. The controversial deduction has remained a buzzing topic of debate among lawmakers, tax policy experts, and stakeholders. In addition to its impermanence, the new passthrough deduction’s ambiguous statutory language created many questions for taxpayers and practitioners.

The IRS released the much-anticipated proposed regulations on the new passthrough deduction, REG-107892-18, on August 8. The guidance has generated a mixed reaction on Capitol Hill, and while significant questions may have been answered, it appears that many remain. Indeed, an IRS spokesperson told Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting before the regulations were released that the IRS’s goal was to issue complete regulations but that the guidance “would not cover every question that taxpayers have.”

Wolters Kluwer recently spoke with Joshua Wu, member, Clark Hill PLC, about the tax implications of the new passthrough deduction and proposed regulations. That exchange included a discussion of the impact that the new law and IRS guidance, both present and future, may have on taxpayers and tax practitioners.

The interview will be presented as a three-part series running from Tuesday, September 11 through Thursday, September 13.

Part I – Qualified Business Income and Activities

Wolters Kluwer: What is the effect of the proposed regulations requiring that qualified business activities meet the Code Sec. 162 trade or business standard? And for what industries might this be problematic?

Joshua Wu: The positive aspect of incorporating the Section 162 trade or business standard is that there is an established body of case law and administrative guidance with respect to what activities qualify as a trade or business. However, the test under Section 162 is factually-specific and requires an analysis of each situation. Sometimes courts reach different results with respect to activities constituting a trade or business. For example, gamblers have been denied trade or business status in numerous cases. In Comm’r v. Groetzinger, 87-1 ustc ¶9191, 480 U.S. 23 (1987), the Court held that whether professional gambling is a trade or business depends on whether the taxpayer can show he pursued gambling full-time, in good faith, regularly and continuously, and possessed a sincere profit motive. Some courts have held that the gambling activity must be full-time, from 60 to 80 hours per week, while others have questioned whether the full-time inquiry is a mandatory prerequisite or permissive factor to determine whether the taxpayer’s gambling activity is a trade or business. See e.g., Tschetschot v. Comm’r, 93 TCM 914, Dec. 56,840(M) (2007). Although Section 162 provides a built-in body of law, plenty of questions remain.

Aside from the gambling industry, the real estate industry will continue to face some uncertainty over what constitutes a trade or business under Code Secs. 162 and 199A. The proposed regulations provide a helpful rule, where the rental or licensing of tangible or intangible property to a related trade or business is treated as a trade or business if the rental or licensing and the other trade or business are commonly controlled. But, that rule does not help taxpayers in the rental industry with no ties to another trade or business. The question remains whether a taxpayer renting out a single-family home or a small group of apartments is engaged in a trade or business for purposes of Code Secs. 162 and 199A. Some case law indicates that just receiving rent with nothing more may not constitute a trade or business. On the other hand, numerous cases have found that managing property and collecting rent can constitute a trade or business. Given the potential tax savings at issue, I suspect there will be additional cases in the real estate industry regarding the level of activity required for the leasing of property to be considered a trade or business.

Qualified Business Income

Wolters Kluwer: How does the IRS define qualified business income (QBI)?

Joshua Wu: QBI is the net amount of effectively connected qualified items of income, gain, deduction and loss from any qualified trade or business. Certain items are excluded from QBI, such as capital gains/losses, certain dividends, and interest income. The Proposed Reg. §1.199A-3(b), provides further clarity on QBI. Most importantly, they provide that a passthrough with multiple trades or business must allocate items of QBI to such trades or businesses based on a reasonable and consistent method that clearly reflects income and expenses. The passthrough may use a different reasonable method for different items of income, gain, deduction, and loss, but the overall combination of methods must also be reasonable based on all facts and circumstances. Further, the books and records must be consistent with allocations under the method chosen. The proposed regulations provide no specific guidance or examples of what a reasonable allocation looks like. Thus, taxpayers are left to determine what constitutes a reasonable allocation.

Unadjusted Basis Immediately after Acquisition

Wolters Kluwer: What effect does the unadjusted basis immediately after acquisition (UBIA) of qualified property attributable to a trade or business have on determining QBI?

Joshua Wu: For taxpayers above the taxable income threshold amounts, $157,500 (single or married filing separate) or $315,000 (married filing jointly), the Code limits the taxpayer’s 199A deduction based on (i) the amount of W-2 wages paid with respect to the trade or business, and/or (ii) the unadjusted basis immediately after acquisition (UBIA) of qualified property held for use in the trade or business.

Where a business pays little or no wages, and the taxpayer is above the income thresholds, the best way to maximize the deduction is to look to the UBIA of qualified property. Rather than the 50 percent of W-2 wages limitation, Section 199A provides an alternative limit based on 25 percent of W-2 wages and 2.5 percent of UBIA qualified property. The Code and proposed regulations define UBIA qualified property as tangible, depreciable property which is held by and available for use in the qualified trade or business at the close of the tax year, which is used at any point during the tax year in the production of qualified business income, and the depreciable period for which has not ended before the close of the tax year. The proposed regulations helpfully clarify that UBIA is not reduced for taxpayers who take advantage of the expanded bonus depreciation allowance or any Section 179 expensing.

De Minimis Exception

Wolters Kluwer: How is the specified service trade or business (SSTB) limitation clarified under the proposed regulations? And how does the de minimis exception apply?

Joshua Wu: The proposed regulations provide helpful guidance on the definition of a SSTB and avoid what some practitioners feared would be an expansive and amorphous area of section 199A. Under the statute, if a trade or business is an SSTB, its items are not taken into account for the 199A computation. Thus, the performance of services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial and brokerage services, investment management, trading, dealing in securities, and any trade or business where the principal asset of such is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees or owners, do not result in a 199A deduction.

There is a de minimis exception to the general rule for taxpayers with taxable income of less than $157,500 (single or married filing separate) or $315,000 (married filing jointly). Once those thresholds are hit, the 199A deduction phases-out until it is fully eliminated at $207,500 (single) or $415,000 (joint).

The proposed regulations provide guidance for each of the SSTB fields. Importantly, they also limit the “reputation or skill” category. The proposed regulations state that the“reputation or skill” clause was intended to describe a “narrow set of trades or businesses, not otherwise covered by the enumerated specified services.” Thus, the proposed regulations limit this definition to cases where the business receives income from endorsing products or services, licensing or receiving income for use of an individual’s image, likeness, name, signature, voice, trademark, etc., or receiving appearance fees. This narrow definition is unlikely to impact most taxpayers.

The second segment of the three-part interview includes discussion on, among other things, industry “winners” and “losers” and notably complex areas when calculating the pass-through deduction. The second segment will be released Wednesday, September 12.

By Jessica Jeane, Senior News Editor

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