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When it comes time to prepare your taxes, you may have an unpleasant surprise waiting in the alternative minimum tax (AMT). Despite its intention of ensuring that top earners pay their fair share of taxes, the AMT really can be a kick in the pants for employees, who cannot deduct their business expenses. Particularly in the case of commissioned employees, this creates a huge difference in the amount of taxes they pay.
What You Need to Know about the AMT
The AMT was created during the 1986 tax reform, and it basically taxes income that is deductible under the regular tax, such as employee business expenses. Here are just a few of the types of employees who pay their own work expenses:
- Mortgage brokers and bankers,
- Insurance sales professionals,
- Traveling sales professionals,
- Real estate sales professionals, and
- Emergency room physicians.
Why are commissioned employees particularly burdened by this tax? It’s because they often have a slew of business-related expenses that they pay out of pocket. Then, here comes the AMT to tell them they are not allowed to deduct any of those expenses. However, independent contractors performing the exact same duties as those commissioned employees can deduct many of their expenses.
What Employees Can Do about It
If your income level boxes you into the AMT, you don’t have to give up and lose thousands of dollars to additional taxes. And yes, it is potentially thousands. Take, for instance, the case of Dan Butts, an Allstate insurance agent. In one year, he paid about $10,000 more in federal income taxes than agents at State Farm.
What did Butts do wrong? Nothing—the difference lay in how he was designated by his employer. Butts was considered a W-2 employee, but the State Farm agents were independent contractors with 1099’s. Look at that scenario again. Butts did the same job, at the same pay, and with the same deductions as the agents at another company, but because of his designation, he paid $10,000 more in taxes.
That is a ridiculous situation for an employee to be in simply because the AMT does not permit deductions for business expenses! Fortunately, if you’re in a commissioned position, like Butts, you can do something about this unfair situation. He simply amended his tax return to put his W-2 employee commission earnings on the Schedule C form that self-employed individuals (including contractors) use. He deducted his expenses and saved that $10,000.
Of course, the IRS noticed that he used the wrong form, and he ended up going to court over the issue. . . and winning! Of note in this case is that the court granted Butts independent contractor status even though he had been employed as an employee with Allstate for years and enjoyed employee benefits. The ruling went his way because he carried a “risk of loss”, just like the agents who were independent contractors.
However, you should keep in mind that using the Schedule C to avoid the AMT may work differently in various fields. For instance, a mortgage loan officer named Dan Cibotti worked for Liberty Trust Mortgage, Inc. as a commission-only W-2 employee. More and more commissioned employees are filing on Schedule C, and Cibotti was one of them. In his case, the court ruled that he was considered an independent contractor, despite having a W-2 that reported his income as an employee, because:
- He set his own hours and chose his own work location and method of finding clients;
- His employer did not provide him an office;
- He claimed a home-office deduction;
- He was paid 100% on commission;
- He had the possibility of gain or loss on his business activities; and
- He received no employee benefits, such as a retirement plan or health insurance.
As you can see, the two situations were quite different, but each involved a commissioned employee who fought for his right to file as an independent contractor and won.
Now that other cases have set the precedent, it is becoming easier for insurance agents and other commissioned employees to avoid the AMT. In fact, the IRS, in chief counsel notice N(35)000-141(a), ordered its lawyers not to challenge individuals who claimed independent contractor status under the Butts precedent, but the IRS can be a stubborn entity. The notice that allowed independent contractor status also instructed the lawyers to:
- Calculate self-employment tax on the agent’s net income and allow a credit just for the employee share of FICA and Medicare (i.e., employer payments are not included);
- Calculate taxes on employee benefits, like employer-paid medical insurance and Section 125 contributions;
- Calculate taxes on 401(k) contributions and make the taxpayer aware that they may not fall back on the Lozon decision, which concluded that such contributions were not taxable until withdrawn.
This notice has since expired, but if you plan to pursue independent contractor status, it would be wise to compare AMT savings with the potential tax disbursement outlined in the above IRS strategy.
Several other cases for independent contractor status have gone to court with varying results. Wesley Wickum, a district manager for Combined Insurance Co. of America, amended three years of tax returns and reclaimed $27,000. His salary included commission from his sales, bonuses, and override commissions based on the salespeople he recruited and supervised. In a funny twist, his company had previously considered the salespeople and managers to be independent contractors, but had changed the status out of fear of IRS penalties for wrongly classifying employees as contractors!
You can see the repercussions on business. The AMT hurts a company’s best salespeople—those who make the most commissions. When such a worker is classified as employee instead of contractor, the AMT comes into play, and may cause the best salespeople to leave the company.
A sales agent named Paul Hathaway also amended three years of tax returns after learning of the Butts case. He was a commissioned employee, and although his company provided a W-2 each year and gave him benefits, he paid his own expenses for food, samples, travel, telephone, stationary, and business cards.
William Johnson and Barbara Lewis, on the other hand, lost each of their cases for independent contractor status. Johnson was a full-time hospital equipment salesperson who worked on commission, but the court ruled that he was an employee because his employer 1) restricted him from hiring employees and 2) required that he file daily call reports. Lewis sold hair care products to salons and also made commissions. The court ruled her an employee by status because 1) her employer required her to file daily sales activity reports, 2) her employer supplied her with leads, which she was expected to follow up on, and 3) she had a negligible “risk of loss”.
AMT Tax Savings
If you’re going to claim independent contractor status for your commissioned income, take these cases as examples what kind of evidence you need. Remember, your savings could be thousands of dollars. Need an example? Let’s say you’re a mortgage loan officer, like Wickum in the case above. If you made $200,000 and spent $125,000 in business expenses, you have a net income of $75,000.
With regular taxes, those business expenses are reduced by 2 percent, leaving a regular taxable income of $79,000 (.02 x $200,000 = $4,000; $125,000 – $4,000 = $121,000; $200,000 – $121,000 = $79,000). But, for AMT purposes, this employee gets no deductions on those expenses. That means the taxable income is the full $200,000. That’s a huge difference!
So, if the employee files taxes on Schedule A, the amount owed is $45,000. On Schedule C (as an independent contractor), it would only be $15,000. You can see why commissioned employees argue for their contractor status.
If your work situation involves unreimbursed business expenses and a status as employee, you have options to establish your status as an independent contractor for tax purposes. Since the IRS has established a position on this issue, you can start by discussing your status with the local IRS district director. If necessary, you can escalate the situation by requesting a private letter ruling from the IRS. This route does cost money, but it will likely be less costly than going to court. Litigation like the Butts case has not happened in years, so you have a good chance of a ruling in your favor if your circumstances and evidence are sufficient. The AMT seems to be here to stay for the present, so don’t let thousands of dollars slip away from you every year.
- Butts v. Commissioner, TC Memo 1993 478, affd. per curiam 49 F.3d 713 (11th Cir. 1995). ↑
- Dean Cibotti v Commr., TC Summary Opinion 2012-21. ↑
- Lozon v. Commr., TC Memo 1997-250. ↑
- Paul E. Hathaway v. Commr., TC Memo 1996-389. ↑
- William O. Johnson v. Commr., TC Memo 1993-530. ↑
- Donald J. Lewis, Jr., v. Commr., TC Memo 1993-635. ↑