Cannabis Business Entity Selection: Effects of Tax Reform

Cannabis taxesOn September 27, 2017, the Trump Administration introduced its framework for tax reform, known officially as the “Unified Framework for Fixing our Broken Tax Code.” Not surprisingly, the proposal leaves the details to Congress. Though the current proposal is short on detail, cannabis businesses should be aware of the impact the overall rate may have on their choice of legal entity.

Up front caveat: there is no chance Congress will pass a tax bill that exactly matches the current proposal. The proposal doesn’t have enough detail, for one. But more important is that the Congressional meat grinder of wheeling and dealing and lobbying generally ends up yielding a product that differs greatly from initial proposals they receive from the White House. Regardless, it’s useful to get an idea of what direction the administration and Congress are likely to push taxes.

Tax Proposal Highlights. The centerpiece of the current tax proposal is to dramatically reduce tax rates, as per the below.

Business Form

2017 Tax Rate

Proposed Tax Rate

Sole Proprietor 10%-39.6% 25%
Partnership/LLC 10%-39.6% 25%
S Corporation 10%-39.6% 25%
C Corporation 15%-39.0% 20%

The current proposal will change how entities treat the costs of equipment and other capital assets under the tax code. Under current law, businesses cannot deduct the full cost of capital equipment — the cost is deducted over a period of years through scheduled depreciation. The new proposal would, at least for a limited time, treat capital expenses the same as operating expenses, allowing companies to deduct the full cost of capital equipment in a given year. This could be a significant benefit to cannabis growers and producers, who can categorize most of their capital equipment as costs of goods sold. Retailers, on the other hand, are unlikely to benefit because deductions for their capital equipment expenses are generally barred by IRC §280E.

In determining the legal structure for your cannabis business, you have two fundamental choices. Do you form a corporation, which is subject to federal income tax itself, or do you form a “pass-through-entity” (typically a limited liability company) where the entity pays no tax, but profits or losses are allocated to the company owners, and those owners must pay individual taxes?

C Corporations. C Corporations are liable for federal income tax at the entity level. Shareholders are not individually liable for those taxes, but they are liable for taxes paid on dividends they receive. This is the dreaded “double taxation” people refer to when criticizing the corporate tax system. But if the corporate tax rate for C Corporations is reduced to 20% across the board, C Corporations may become very attractive to cannabis businesses.

C Corporations can offer additional benefits. If the IRS audits a C corporation, additional taxes assessed are a liability of the corporation, not a personal liability of the shareholders. Compare to a partnership, where even if a partner were completely innocent of any blame in a situation where prior year profits were understated, that partner would be individually liable for any assessment of unpaid taxes. The IRS treats shareholders active in a C corporation as employees and thus not subject to the 15.3% self-employment tax. C Corporations also typically offer greater flexibility regarding employee benefits and incentive compensation.

Limited Liability Companies. Limited liability companies have become the most common entity choice for those starting a business, cannabis or otherwise. They protect their members from personal liability like a corporation, and they also provide considerable management flexibility, lacking the mandatory formal structures of corporations.

For income tax purposes, the LLC is a chameleon and may take on many forms. An LLC with a single individual member is treated as a disregarded entity — individual members report business operations directly on their personal tax returns. Under the current tax proposal, a sole proprietor’s (or single member of an LLC’s) income from his or her business activity would be taxed at 25%, however, it also indicates that a “wealthy individual” may not avoid “the top personal tax rate.” But the proposal does not have any details on how exactly that exception would be included in a final tax bill.

An LLC with more than two members is treated as a partnership and tax is imposed at the partner level, with the partners’ share of income or losses reported on their personal income tax returns. Again, under the proposal, each partner’s tax rate is capped at 25%.  Presumably, a partner that is a C Corporation will be taxed on 25% of its pass-through income.

Finally, an LLC may “check-the-box” and elect to be treated as C or S corporation. S Corporations are pass-through-entities and S Corporation shareholders are taxed at the shareholder level similar to partners in a partnership. The income of an LLC that elects to be treated as a C corporation would presumably be taxed at the 20% corporate tax rate.

One benefit of a pass-through-entity is that a partner is not subject to double taxation as cash distributions to a partner may be received tax-free. In addition, an LLC/partnership generally may be dissolved with a lower risk of triggering recognition of income on the liquidation. For example, let’s say that a C corporation buys a piece of real estate for $400,000, and two years later the real estate has appreciated in value to $600,000. The shareholders’ original investment in corporate stock is $300,000. If the corporation dissolves and the shareholders receive the real estate, they have to pay tax on the fair market value of the property ($600,000) less their original stock investment ($300,000). So, the shareholder must pay tax on a gain of $300,000. But in an LLC/partnership, the liquidation of the partnership would not be a taxable event, so the partners would not immediately pay tax on that value. 

There are a few drawbacks to partnerships in the cannabis space. As discussed earlier, partners have individual liability for tax that the partnership owes, so all partners must be diligent to ensure they are making sufficient tax payments. Additionally, because of some quirks in the partnership tax code, IRC 280E has the effect of making a partner that is selling its interest pay more tax on the sale of that partnership interest than a similarly situated shareholder in a C corporation would pay. Finally, members/partners must pay employment taxes at the 7.65% rate, whereas the C Corporation pays a shareholder employee’s share of such taxes. 

If you are making an entity selection decision soon, keep an eye on Congress. The tax code can be hard to understand, and the media doesn’t always concentrate on details that can have a dramatic effect on things like business entity selection. Any major tax reform will create a lot of confusion and will change some common assumptions, so stay vigilant.