ESOPs have several significant tax benefits, the most important of which are:
1. Contributions of stock are tax deductible: That means companies can get a current cash flow advantage by issuing new shares or treasury shares to the ESOP, although this means existing owners will be diluted.
2. Cash contributions are deductible: A company can contribute cash on a discretionary basis year-to-year and take a tax deduction for it, whether the contribution is used to buy shares from current owners or to build up a cash reserve in the ESOP for future use.
3. Contributions used to repay a loan the ESOP takes out to buy company shares are tax-deductible: The ESOP can borrow money to buy existing shares, new shares, or treasury shares. Regardless of the use, the contributions are deductible, meaning ESOP financing is done in pretax dollars.
4. Sellers in a C corporation can get a tax deferral: In C corporations, once the ESOP owns 30% of all the shares in the company, the seller can reinvest the proceeds of the sale in other securities and defer any tax on the gain.
5. In S corporations, the percentage of ownership held by the ESOP is not subject to income tax at the federal level (and usually the state level as well): That means, for instance, that there is no income tax on 30% of the profits of an S corporation with an ESOP holding 30% of the stock, and no income tax at all on the profits of an S corporation wholly owned by its ESOP. Note, however, that the ESOP still must get a pro-rata share of any distributions the company makes to owners.
6. Dividends are tax deductible: Reasonable dividends used to repay an ESOP loan, passed through to employees, or reinvested by employees in company stock are tax deductible.
7. Employees pay no tax on the contributions to the ESOP, only the distribution of their accounts, and then at potentially favorable rates: The employees can roll over their distributions in an IRA or other retirement plan or pay current tax on the distribution, with any gains accumulated over time taxed as capital gains. The income tax portion of the distributions, however, is subject to a 10% penalty if made before normal retirement age.
Note that all contribution limits are subject to certain limitations, although these rarely pose a problem for companies.
As attractive as these tax benefits are, there are limits and drawbacks. The law does not allow ESOPs to be used in partnerships and most professional corporations. ESOPs can be used in S corporations, but do not qualify for the rollover treatment discussed above and have lower contribution limits. Private companies must repurchase shares of departing employees, and this can become a major expense. The cost of setting up an ESOP is also substantial—perhaps $40,000 for the simplest of plans in small companies, and it goes up from there. Any time new shares are issued, the stock of existing owners is diluted. That dilution must be weighed against the tax and motivation benefits an ESOP can provide. Finally, ESOPs will improve corporate performance only if combined with opportunities for employees to participate in decisions affecting their work.
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