Equity compensation for independent contractors

By Elena Hanson

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

Tech startups often compensate independent contractors or vendors with equity, such as stock options or restricted stock. Businesses can acquire needed services without dipping into their coffers, and contractors can make an investment with minimal cash and potentially realize significant returns.

A barter exchange is simple, right? No so fast! Lawyers with clients who own or provide services to tech startups should know that there are many considerations for both the business and contractor that are often overlooked when structuring equity-based compensation plans. In fact, participation in such plans can have unforeseen tax consequences.

Equity plans such as stock options are designed to incentivize employees. In Canada, when an employee is granted stock options, there are no tax consequences until the option is exercised. Also, under the right circumstances (i.e., the shares are "prescribed shares" or the employee deals at arm's length with the option grantor), employees may be eligible to claim a deduction equal to 50 per cent of the stock option benefit.

The Income Tax Act provisions that address the favourable tax treatment apply to employees, not independent contractors. Independent contractors must recognize the value of the option as business income that is 100 per cent taxable when the option is granted. This means the tax cannot be deferred to the time when the options are exercised. Furthermore, the preferable 50 per cent security option deduction also applies to employees only.

Stock options held by independent contractors that have increased in value since grant must recognize the growth from the date of grant as regular income at vest. Adding insult to injury, the income recognized as business income at grant and vest is also subject to HST. Applicable sales tax varies by province.

Another issue is establishing fair market value. In the case of options being granted to an independent contractor, both parties must agree on the value of the underlying stock and the value of the goods or services rendered. The issue for contractors is that fair market value of startups is no exact science. However, this is the value that will be subject to income and sales taxes.

Independent contractors are, in general, a highly mobile workforce. This is especially true between Canada and the U.S. Unfortunately, when it comes to equity compensation for contractors, tax complexities are increased when the option holder works in multiple countries.

A common U.S. trap is the punitive salary deferral rules of s. 409A of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) that impose an additional 20 per cent tax on income being deferred. For example, stock options granted with an exercise price less than the fair market value of the underlying stock at the time of grant are subject to 409A treatment in the U.S. The company must complete a 409A valuation — a formal report that sets the current value of a company's stock and the price to purchase that stock — to ensure the option does not result in punitive taxation.

In Canada, equity incentives such as restricted stock awards (RSAs), restricted stock units (RSUs), stock appreciation rights (SARs) and phantom stock plans may be subject to salary deferral rules. For example, an RSA would fall into this category if the vesting period exceeds three years. This means that the income must be taxed on a current basis regardless of when the income is actually paid, effectively negating the tax deferral.

A trap for Canadian taxpayers holding U.S. equity incentives involves the timing recognition for calculating income tax. In the U.S., one recognizes taxable income resulting from RSAs when there is no longer a substantial risk of forfeiture and the vesting conditions are met. In Canada, however, income is recognized at the time of grant. The difference in the timing of taxable events between the two countries can result in a double-tax situation where the use of foreign tax credits isn't possible. Imagine a 60-to-70 per cent tax rate on the income!

All is not lost though. Independent contractors who must file Canadian and U.S. tax returns should consider IRC s. 83(b) election for U.S. tax purposes. It allows for income from RSAs to be recognized at the time of grant, matching the Canadian treatment and timing.

Overall, receiving equity awards as part of a business transaction is not a recommended tax strategy. The implications are even worse for incorporated contractors. Formal compensation plans should always consider the risk incurred by the contractor in the form of a risk premium (i.e., valuing services rendered higher than market value, granting the options at a discounted price, or a combination of both). While the contractor could experience a windfall when the options are vested, one could also have a shortfall.

Finally, while all this highlights tax consequences for the independent contractor, the issuing company (i.e., the employer) should perform its due diligence to ensure it is not negatively impacted by the award.

Elena Hanson is the founder and managing director of Hanson Crossborder Tax Inc .

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