Dec 15, 2022
How to avoid a big fat tax surprise
Complex compensation plans go hand in hand with being a corporate executive—including stock options, restricted stock units and other forms of compensation.
But these equity awards can result in a large tax bill, especially for executives who earn enough to be in the top federal tax bracket.
That’s because when an executive exercises a large chunk of company stock options, the taxable income often comes in a single year. As a result, large stock option exercises often come with large tax surprises if the tax withholding is insufficient.
Consider taking these actions to cut this year’s tax bill and prepare for the next tax season:
Understand how equity awards are taxed
Executives who exercise stock options or have vesting restricted stock units (RSUs), performance share units (PSUs) and other equity awards might find that not enough tax was withheld from these awards. I’ve worked with executives whose employers automatically withheld taxes on equity awards 10% to 15% below the proper amount, causing them to owe thousands more at tax time.
I recently met with an executive receiving more company equity awards as part of her compensation package. While her regular income tax withholding was correct, the default withholding tax rate for vesting stock awards was much too low. Unfortunately, her company didn’t provide an option to adjust the withholding equity awards.
Specifically, her vesting PSU resulted in $40,000 of taxable income. Based on her total projected annual income, she was in the 35% marginal tax bracket. However, only 20% was withheld from the award, and she underpaid by $6,000. To avoid spending the $6,000 before the tax was due in April, she proactively made a $6,000 estimated tax payment directly to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to make up for the shortfall.
Make a “safe harbor” payment
To avoid penalties for underpayment of taxes, anyone unsure of their tax liability can also make a “safe harbor” tax payment.
Safe harbor means that you can avoid penalties if you have paid at least 90% of your actual current year tax or 110% of prior year taxes (or 100% of prior year taxes, depending on income).1 Even if you don’t know how much your income will be in a given tax year, at a minimum, you should consider making safe harbor payments to avoid an underpayment penalty.2
For example, let’s assume your 2022 federal income tax liability was $100,000. In 2023, you expect much higher income, but you are unsure how it will impact your total 2023 tax bill.
As long as you have paid a total of $110,000 (110% of 2022 federal tax) via withholding and estimated tax payments during 2023, you will avoid underpayment tax penalties. If it turns out that your 2023 tax bill is $150,000, you will still owe the $40,000 shortfall. But the $110,000 safe harbor payment should protect you from any underpayment penalties.
Plan ahead for next year—conduct a “paycheck checkup”
To avoid any problems in future years, ask your accountant to run a mid-year tax projection to ensure the amount of taxes withheld from each paycheck is on track for the year.
You may find that the amount needed to be withheld for taxes should be increased. For those who need to make adjustments to their regular withdrawal amount from their paychecks, the IRS has a withholding calculator tool: https://www.irs.gov/individuals/tax-withholding-estimator.
If an adjustment is needed, complete a Form W-4, which lets your employer know how much money they should withhold from your paycheck. Some states have a similar form to adjust withholding at the state level. The withholding formula is based on marital status, the number of children, income sources and other variables.
I recently met with a man who was starting his second year in a new job. Last spring, he was surprised to receive a large tax bill, including penalties and interest payments, from his work in the previous year. We reviewed his pay stub and discovered that only 20% of his pay was withheld for federal taxes. It should have been around 30%.
Since he unknowingly withheld less money for taxes in his first year with the new company, he had a false sense of security regarding cash on hand and his capacity to spend. He submitted a new Form W-4 to increase his withholding amount moving forward.
As the compensation structure for top talent becomes increasingly complex and potentially more lucrative, it’s essential to plan ahead to avoid any unwelcome surprises—especially the kind of surprises that can mean owing more to the IRS. Taking a few hours now to protect your hard-earned money could pay off next spring.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Halpern, CPA, CFP®, PFS
Ryan is a Certified Public Accountant, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner, Personal Financial Specialist, and has earned the CFA Institute Investment Foundations™ Certificate. He received his Master of Accountancy and his Bachelor of Business Administration in accounting with honors from the University of Georgia.
Ryan joined Brightworth in 2013, and is now a partner at CI Private Wealth. Ryan started his career at Ernst & Young, concentrating on the taxation of high-net-worth individuals. He continued his career on the tax team at a multi-family office, broadening his experience with individual tax, charitable, and estate planning.
Ryan’s articles on tax and other financial strategies have been published on CNBC.com, Kiplinger.com, in Financial Advisor magazine, and in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Ryan is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Georgia Society of Certified Public Accountants, and the Financial Planning Association.
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