How to cut the tax bill on your self-employment salary

August 31, 2009: 9:08 AM ET

If you own your own company, you can skip a salary in favor of distributions, but the IRS still wants its share of the money you take home.

Erin, Kailua-Kona

Do shareholders have to take a salary in an S corp? Can they just take distributions? How about an LLC?

By Lenora Chu, CNNMoney.com contributing writer

In tackling your question, it's important to first understand the difference between a salary and a distribution.

A salary is a payment by a business in exchange for services rendered. A distribution is a payment taken out of the profits or other assets of the organization.

There is no federal tax law requirement that shareholders of either an S corporation or an LLC pay themselves a salary, says Jonathan Moyer, an attorney at international law firm Reed Smith LLP.

Instead, they can decide to take only distributions, or even keep profits in the corporation as shareholders' equity to be distributed at a later time, says Paul Jaskot, also a Reed Smith attorney.

However, payment of the federal self-employment tax -- a Social Security and Medicare tax for individuals who work for themselves -- should be weighed when considering how shareholders should take their compensation.

With an S corporation, salaries are subject to self-employment tax, but distributions are not. (Both are subject to regular federal income taxes.)

Even so, while it appears beneficial to take only distributions, many S corp shareholders elect to take at least a small salary, says Len Friedman, tax partner at the Bridgewater, N.J., accounting firm Rosenberg, Rich, Baker, Berman & Company.
Why? S corp shareholders who take only distributions must still pay self-employment tax on an "industry standard" amount of salary -- or risk an IRS challenge, Moyer says.

"There's the rub," says Moyer, who suggests taking a salary limited to that industry standard to minimize self-employment tax liabilities. What counts as an "industry standard" is up to you to determine -- but be prepared to back up your accounting if you set a lowball number. The IRS isn't shy about challenging salaries it deems too low.

With an LLC, owners whom the IRS considers to be self-employed must pay self-employment tax on all of their income -- in other words, on both salary and distributions.

Thus, there is no salary requirement, because all income is effectively taxed as if it were a salary, Friedman notes.

So while LLCs provide more freedom for members to structure management operations and ownership of the company, they can generate higher tax burdens in certain situations, says Moyer.

There are many tax and legal implications involved in forming a business entity, so the experts advise discussing your specific situation with an attorney or tax professional.

Give us your advice: Check out recent "Ask & Answer" questions.

Related links:

The fair way to set employee salaries

Fair pay for you and your partners

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