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Your 20% Flow-Through Tax Deduction May Be Limited



Chuck Woodson, Specified Service Trades or Businesses, SSTBs, qualified trades or businesses, QTBs, Tax Deduction,

As part of its recent tax reform, Congress included a new 20% deduction of pass-through income for trades or businesses other than C-corporations. This pass-through income is referred to as qualified business income (QBI); for trades or businesses, it generally includes bottom-line profits, and for S-corporations and partnerships, it includes K-1 flow-through income. This new law was added as tax code section 199A, so the deduction is often referred to as the 199A deduction.

Congress added this deduction to benefit sole proprietors, partners, and S-corporation shareholders (among others); the goal is to allow for benefits equivalent to the substantial tax-rate cut that the same reform provided to C-corporations. However, this new deduction is not applied uniformly to all types of trades and businesses, for which there are two categories:

  • qualified trades or businesses (QTBs) and
  • specified service trades or businesses (SSTBs).

This deduction is limited by the taxpayer’s filing status and 1040 taxable income, and it differs depending on whether the business is a QTB or a SSTB. Although the main purposes of this article are to define SSTBs and to describe how they are taxed differently from QTBs, if one is to understand why an SSTB may not qualify for the deduction, whereas a QTB might qualify, it is necessary to first understand the basic differences between the deductions for SSTBs and QTBs.

Apparently, Congress considered the income from service businesses to be akin to wages and didn’t want taxpayers who provide services to have the benefit of the 20% deduction instead of paying taxes on that income as ordinary wages. This change was primarily aimed at deterring high-income people from becoming independent contractors or setting up pass-through businesses so that they could turn their wages into business income and get the 20% deduction. The result is a phase-out of the deduction for high-income taxpayers who have income from SSTBs.

The table below provides an overview of the tax treatment for each type of business. As you will note, the SSTB deduction phases out for higher levels of 1040 taxable income, but the QTB deduction does not. This type of phase-out is called a wage limitation.

Example of How to Use the Table: Two married people who are filing jointly have 1040 taxable income (before the 199A deduction) of $469,000; they also have a SSTB. They would first select the box with their filing status (“Married Filing a Joint Return”), then move to the right to the correct range of 1040 taxable income (which is the adjusted gross income after removing either the standard deduction or the itemized deductions; in this case, “Greater than $415,000”), and finally follow that column down to the cell aligned with the correct type of business (“SSTB”). In this case, the trade or business does not qualify for the 199A deduction.

Taxpayer’s Filing Status

Taxable Income
(Before the 199A deduction)

Married Filing a Joint Return
Less Than $315,000
Between $315,000 and $415,000

Greater than $415,000

Other filing Statuses
Less Than $157,500
Between $157,500 and $207,500

Greater than $207,500

Type of Business
The 199A Deduction
SSTB
20% of QBI
Deduction phased out
No deduction allowed
QTB
20% of QBI
Wage limitation phased in
Deduction equal to the lesser of 20% of QBI or the wage limitation

Specified Service Trades or Businesses (SSTBs)

The IRS describes SSTBs as being in the following fields:

  • Health – The health category includes the provision of services by physicians, pharmacists, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, physical therapists, psychologists, and similar health care professionals who provide medical services directly to patients. However, this excludes the provision of services that are not directly related to a medical field, even when those services purportedly relate to the health of the service recipient. For example, this category excludes the operation of health clubs or spas that provide physical exercise or conditioning; health-related payment processing; or the research, testing, manufacture, and/or sales of pharmaceuticals or medical devices.
  • Law – The law category refers to the provision of services by lawyers, paralegals, legal arbitrators, mediators, and similar professionals in their capacities as such. The category excludes the provision of services that do not require skills unique to the field of law, such as the printing, delivery, and stenography services provided to lawyers.
  • Accounting – The accounting category includes the provision of services by accountants, enrolled agents, tax-return preparers, financial auditors, and similar professionals in their capacities as such. This category is not limited to services that require state licensure as a certified public accountant. This category also excludes payment processing and billing analysis.
  • Actuarial Science – The actuarial science category refers to the provision of services by actuaries and similar professionals in their capacities as such. This category only includes the services provided by analysts, economists, mathematicians, and statisticians if they are engaged in analyzing or assessing financial costs due to risk or uncertainty.
  • Performing Arts – The performing arts category includes the performance of services by individuals who participate in the creation of the performing arts, including actors, singers, musicians, entertainers, directors, and similar professionals in their capacities as such. It excludes services that do not require skills that are unique to the creation of performing arts, such as the maintenance and operation of equipment or facilities. Similarly, the dissemination of video or audio of performing-arts events to the public is not considered to be a service in the performing arts.
  • Athletics – The athletics category refers to the performance of services by individuals who participate in athletic competitions, including athletes, coaches, and team managers in sports such as baseball, basketball, football, soccer, hockey, martial arts, boxing, bowling, tennis, golf, skiing, snowboarding, track and field, billiards, and racing. This category excludes the provision of services that do not require skills that are unique to athletic competition, such as the maintenance and operation of equipment or facilities for use in athletic events. It also excludes the provision of services by persons who disseminate video or audio of athletic events to the public.
  • Consulting – The consulting category refers to the provision of professional advice and counsel to clients to assist them in achieving goals and solving problems. Consulting professionals include lobbyists and similar professionals, but this category focuses on their capacities as such and excludes the minor consulting that accompanies the sale of a product. A trade or businesses cannot be an SSTP if less than 10% of its gross receipts are from consulting (or 5% if the company’s gross receipts are greater than $25 million).
  • Financial services – The category of financial services applies to services that are typically performed by financial advisors and investment bankers, including the following financial services: managing wealth; advising clients with respect to their finances; developing retirement and wealth-transition plans; providing advisory and other services regarding valuations, mergers, acquisitions, dispositions, and restructurings (including in title 11 bankruptcies and similar cases); and raising financial capital through underwriting or by acting as a client’s agent in the issuance of securities. This includes the services provided by financial advisors, investment bankers, wealth planners, retirement advisors, and similar professionals but excludes banking services such as deposit-taking or loan-making.
  • Brokerage Services – The brokerage services category includes services in which a person arranges transactions between a buyer and a seller with respect to securities and in exchange for a commission or fee. This includes services provided by stock brokers and similar professionals but excludes services provided by real estate or insurance agents and brokers.
  • Reputation or Skill – The original legislation’s list of SSTBs included trades or businesses for which the principal asset was the reputation or skill of one or more of employees or owners. However, it was unclear if this meant, for example, that a self-employed plumber who provided his skill to the business would be eligible for the 199A deduction. The taxpayer-friendly interpretation of these tax regulations has generally defined “reputation and skill” to mean:(1) The receipt of income in exchange for endorsing products or services for which the individual provides endorsement services(2) The receipt of licensing income in exchange for the use of an individual’s image, likeness, name, signature, voice, trademark, or any other symbol associated with that individual’s identity; or

    (3) The receipt of appearance fees or income (including fees or income paid to reality performers who appear as themselves on television, social media, or other forums; radio, television, and other media hosts; and video game players).

The amount of pass-through deduction that is ultimately available due to an SSTB is entirely dependent upon the taxpayer’s 1040 taxable income. Thus, in some cases, pension contributions and the expensing of business assets can lower a taxpayer’s taxable income enough that he or she benefits from an increase in the pass-through deduction. In this scenario, married couples who are not living in community-property states could benefit from filing separately rather than jointly.

If you have questions related to whether your business qualifies for this new deduction, whether it is classified as an SSTB, or how SSTB income fits into your overall tax picture,please contact Charles Woodson.

Chuck Woodson

Leading Expert and Fiduciary Coach to families dealing with trusts and estates. Contact me to handle all trust and estate matters seamlessly for you.

Contact Tax Advisor/Fiduciary Coach Chuck Woodson at 858.277.8780

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