Can Locums Doctors Qualify for a 20% Tax Deduction?

The new tax bill has become law and accountants are eagerly poring over the details, dissecting it for loopholes. One of the biggest giveaways is to small businesses, allowing a 20% deduction for income that is passed through (called “pass-thru” in the law) to the individual. It’s called Section 199A, and I expect that this will become a household name as famous as the 401k. The intent of the addition is to benefit small businesses (larger ones tend to go for C-corp style taxation) that employ the bulk of Americans but would otherwise be penalized at higher individual tax rates versus C-corps. To avoid incentivizing too many of these entities to be forced to convert to C-corps, it was decided to offer some token tax cut to pass through businesses. Ron Johnson largely pushed this addition through by himself, given slim margins for Republicans in the Senate.

Remember, this website isn’t interested in debating the ethics of the law or the politics behind its passage or ramifications. Rather, we want to be more practical (or nakedly capitalist if you will) – can I exploit this loophole for my own gain? This will be a more fine tuned analysis geared towards medical professionals, due to my own expertise in this area, but the principles are largely applicable to other professional service businesses as well.

To qualify, first you must be taxed as a pass through business. This includes:

  • Sole proprietors. If you’re taxed by filling out Schedule C reports of your 1099 independent contractor income, you count in this category. It’s the default if you haven’t gone out of your way to form a more advanced business structure.
  • Partnership. Basically a few sole proprietors working together on the project, each owning a portion of the firm. Each passes through income proportionally. Note that a married couple can be counted as a sole proprietor because they file together.
  • S-corp. This is where things get fun. This business model can scale as big as you want. You have all the responsibilities of a big corporation in terms of payroll, offering 401k, health benefits, getting a corporate board, and filing quarterly tax payments. It’s a big setup and reporting hassle and can be expensive to maintain. Luckily there are software packages out there that can make it easy for you to create one.
  • LLC status is a legal distinction that doesn’t matter to the IRS.

Contracted physicians (this includes the locums category) tend to be either sole proprietors or S-corp. Many have opted for the latter because you can choose to structure some income as wage income (W-2) and the rest as a pass through business distribution that is not subject to payroll tax. The IRS closely scrutinizes the proportion that is in each category to prevent people underpaying themselves and taking almost everything as a distribution. The generally accepted principle is that your income should be close to the national average for your profession and the type of work you do. Given the high incomes of physicians, this won’t save you anything in Social Security (unless you work part time) once you pass the income limit, but it will only save you the 2.9% Medicare portion of payroll tax that is applied to all earned income. It’s up to you to determine whether the tax savings outweigh the setup and maintenance costs as well as tax reporting hassles.

When crafting this carve out, politicians were careful to limit its benefits to favoured categories of individuals. They like businesses that own real estate, employ people, and invest in capital equipment. They most definitely did not want this loophole to benefit high income professionals who don’t employ others. Politically that would be depicted as overly favouring the rich, who presumably don’t need this loophole. Thus the law featured two “tests” – the income test and the profession test.

The Income Test

If you’re single and your total taxable income (this includes all other investment, side job, and interest income) is less than $157,500, great! You can take this deduction no questions asked. If you’re married, the same limit is $315,000. Mind you, if your income is higher than this threshold, it doesn’t mean you can’t take it. Rather, there’s a phase out period up to $207,500 for singles and $415,000 for married individuals. The phase out is essentially linear. What it means is if your income is above the phase out thresholds, you can’t use *any* of this 20% deduction. It doesn’t mean that you can still deduct the portion that’s under $315,000.

Ironically, this creates significantly negative incentives around the phase out line where one’s marginal tax rate goes up temporarily to ~50-60% because of rising brackets and losing benefits. Greg Mankiw may chime in in five years and say that it’s a “upper middle class” income trap with bad incentives.

Don’t fret if your income is above either threshold (lucky you!). Remember this test just wants to check your total taxable income. Anything that reduces this number can make you thin enough to squeeze under the bar and claim the deduction. This includes SEP-IRA, 401k, and business expenses, all of which reduce what’s visible as taxable income.

The Profession Test

If you make more than the income cutoffs, you can benefit from the law if your business fits into one of these categories:

  1. Anyone who is in the business of being an employee (yes, being an employee is considered being in a business), and
  2. Any “specified service trade or business.” 

The IRS will spend several years filing lawsuits and refining this broad definition, but for now you can consider that if your business features your skills and services as opposed to owning property and selling goods, you’re one of the undesirable types. You will fail the profession test. Law, medicine, “consultant” and accounting are some of the professions that are explicitly mentioned as failing this test.

Somehow there are exceptions for architects and engineers. No one knows why but presumably their professional societies lobbied hard.

The Recap

So for our locums physician to take advantage of this benefit, he or she needs to satisfy the income test, because we know that medicine will surely fail the profession test. This is easier to do if you work in one of the lower paying specialties, work part-time, and are married. For our friends with S-corp setups, since the income test evaluates you on your overall income, it doesn’t matter if you slice your earnings as salary or a business distribution, they both will be counted for purposes of the limit. This obviates a big advantage of S-corps relative to sole proprietors.

Some of the more astute readers will note that there is another test called the W-2 test, which is supposed to limit abuse by preventing really high income people from quitting their jobs and becoming a consultant working the same job. Forbes explains better than I can:

I’m a partner at a BIG, PRESTIGIOUS ACCOUNTING FIRM. I am also, however, an employee; one who collects a wage. Now, let’s just assume that my annual wage is $800,000 (it is not). With the new rules coming down and offering a 20% deduction against my income, what would prevent me from quitting my current gig, and then having my firm engage the services of “Tony Nitti, Inc.” a brand new S corporation I’ve set up specifically to facilitate my tax shenanigans? Now, my firm pays that same $800,000 to my S corporation, and my S corporation simply allows that income to flow through to be as QBI. I, in turn, take a 20% deduction against that income, reducing my income to $640,000. See the problem?

My role at my firm hasn’t changed. I provided accounting services before, I provide accounting services now. But before, I was receiving wages taxed at ordinary rates as high as 37%. Now, by converting to an S corporation and foregoing wages in favor of QBI, I am now paying an effective rate on that income of only 29.6% (37% * 80%). That’s not fair, is it? Compensation for services should be taxed at the same rate, whether it’s coming to me as a salary or flow-through income.

To prevent these abuses, Congress enacted the W-2 limitations. Because, in my example, Tony Nitti, Inc. does not pay any wages, in both scenarios my limitation would be a big fat ZERO, meaning I get no deduction. Like so:

My deduction is the LESSER OF:

  1. 20% of $800,000, or $160,000, or
  2. The GREATER OF:
    1. 50% of W-2 wages, or $0, or
    2. 25% of W-2 wages, or $0, plus 2.5% of the unadjusted basis of the LLC’s assets, or $0, for a total of $0..

It’s a lot of calculation and looks complicated, but we can actually disregard it all as this limitation will only come into play if you fail the income test. Since we’ve already determined that a physician who fails the income test will automatically fail the profession test and be prohibited from taking the deduction, we shouldn’t even worry about this section.

As Forbes explains:

Section 199A(b)(3)(A) provides that if your TAXABLE INCOME for the year — not adjusted gross income, not QBI, but TAXABLE INCOME — is less than the “threshold amount” for the year, then you can simply ignore the two W-2-based limitations. The “threshold amounts” for 2018 are $315,000 if you are married, and $157,500 for all other taxpayers. These amounts will be indexed for inflation starting in 2019. And quite obviously, you determine taxable income WITHOUT factoring in any potential 20% deduction that we’re discussing here.

The Payoff

Phew. You’ve waded through all of the above because you’re eagerly salivating over seeing how much you can save on your taxes, right?! Let’s crunch some numbers.

Our example physician is married, works as a contractor (paid as 1099), and is set up as a sole practitioner (in the end, S-corp calculations won’t be too different from this) for simplicity’s sake. Assume no kids. This person is based in Texas and to avoid troublesome state income tax calculations performs contract work in Washington, Nevada, Texas, and Florida only. Yearly income starting in 2018, the first year the new law will apply, is estimated to be $400,000.

To fit under the threshold, we maximize our SEP-IRA contributions, which are $54,000. We accumulate $22,000 in deductible business expenses. Then we also take the standard deduction of $24,000 for a married couple. That leaves us with $300,000 exact in visible taxable income. All of it is eligible for the 20% deduction.

Let’s use Marketwatch’s calculator to calculate our total tax under the new bracket system for 2018:

  • $40,179 for federal income tax
  • $0 state income tax
  • $15,958.8 Social Security (double because of 1099)
  • $12,114 Medicare (including surtax)
  • Total of $68,251.8

For comparison, if we earn that $300,000 as W-2 income (employed physician), our total tax will be:

  • $60,578 for federal income tax
  • $0 state income tax
  • $7,979.4 Social Security
  • $6,633 Medicare (including surtax)
  • Total of $75,190.4

There is a net savings of $6,938.6 with business income as opposed to wage income. The numbers are close but not exact, since the business owner will be able to deduct business expenses and half of the payroll tax that the W-2 earner can’t itemize.

I haven’t included calculations for S-corp owners because there are complex rules depending on how much you take as W-2 salary and how much is a distribution. The same thresholds apply, and you are only allowed the 20% deduction on the portion that is a distribution.

 

(Much of the details are from the source text, as well as Forbes Tax Geek and Evergreen Small Business)

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