It May Level the Playing Field, but There Are Provisions to Watch
Section 199A of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was created to level the playing field when it comes to lowering the corporate tax rate for those businesses not acting as C corporations. For most profit-seeking ventures, qualifying for the deduction is not difficult, but for rental real estate, it becomes more difficult.
By Lisa White, CPA
On Dec. 22, 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was signed into law, bringing with it a plethora of changes, affecting, albeit in varying degrees, every taxable and non-taxable entity and individual.
One of the primary focuses of the act was to lower the corporate tax rate to a flat rate of 21%. In order to keep the taxable-entity landscape equitable, however, a provision was necessary for those businesses not operating as C corporations.
Thus, Section 199A was created, providing for a deduction of up to 20% of qualified business income from a domestic business operating as a sole proprietorship, partnership, S corporation, trust, or estate.
The first step in assessing the benefit of the Section 199A deduction is to determine if there is a qualified activity. The statute uses Section 162 of the Internal Revenue Code to designate qualification — which is difficult since Section 162 does not actually provide a clear definition of what constitutes a trade or business.
“What might be the easiest way to approach making the determination is the ‘walks like a duck, quacks like a duck’ scenario. If the activity is a profit-seeking venture that requires regular and continuous involvement, there should not be an issue with rising to the level of a qualified trade or business under Section 162 — and thus being eligible for the Section 199A deduction.”
Instead, case law must be used to support the position taken. What might be the easiest way to approach making the determination is the ‘walks like a duck, quacks like a duck’ scenario. If the activity is a profit-seeking venture that requires regular and continuous involvement, there should not be an issue with rising to the level of a qualified trade or business under Section 162 — and thus being eligible for the Section 199A deduction.
For rental real estate, the determination becomes a bit more complicated. If the rental activity consists of property being rented to or among a group of commonly controlled businesses, where the same owner — or group of owners — owns directly or indirectly at least 50% of both the rental property and the operating business, and the operating business is not a C corporation, then the qualifying designation is automatic. Otherwise, to make the determination, we must once again turn to case law.
Here, this becomes problematic, as there is limited history supporting the position that rental activities rise to the level of a Section 162 trade or business, as the designation heretofore was unnecessary.
In response to concerns about the lack of guidance, the Internal Revenue Service issued Revenue Procedure 2019-7, which provides for a safe harbor under which a rental-real-estate activity will be treated as qualifying for the Section 199A deduction. In addition to holding the rental property either directly or through a disregarded entity, other qualifying factors include the following:
• Separate books and records are maintained for each rental activity (or rental activity group);
• At least 250 hours of rental services are performed each year on each rental activity; and
• For tax years ending after 2018, contemporaneous records are maintained detailing hours of services performed, description of services performed, dates on which services were performed, and, who performed the services.
When making the determination of whether an activity rises to the level of a trade or business under the general rules, each activity must be assessed separately, and no grouping is permitted.
Alternatively, the safe-harbor provision provides an opportunity to elect to group rental activities together in order to meet the other qualifications. The caveat here is that commercial properties must be grouped only with other commercial properties, and likewise for residential properties. Once made, the grouping election can be changed only if there is a significant change in the facts and circumstances. The rental services performed that qualify for the 250-hour requirement include tasks such as advertising, negotiating leases, collecting rent, and managing the property, among others. Financial-management activities, such as arranging financing or reviewing financial statements, do not qualify as ‘rental services,’ nor does the time spent traveling to and from the property. The rental services can be performed by the owners of the property or by others, such as a property-management company.
The safe-harbor election is available to both individuals and pass-through entities and is made by attaching a signed affidavit to the filed return stating that the requirements under the safe-harbor provision have been met.
It’s important to note here that, although meeting the safe-harbor requirements will qualify the activity for Section 199A, it does not provide automatic qualification under Section 162. Similarly, failure to satisfy the safe-harbor requirements does not mean the activity automatically does not qualify for the deduction. Instead, support for the position will just need to be derived from considering other relevant factors and/or case law that can be used as precedent.
Additionally, the safe-harbor election cannot be made for residences used personally for more than 14 days during the year, nor for properties rented on a triple-net-lease basis, a scenario where the tenant is responsible for the taxes, insurance, and general maintenance related to a rental property.
If pursuing the Section 199A deduction for rental property without using the safe-harbor provision, some factors to consider documenting would be the type of property rented, the day-to-day involvement of the owner (or the owner’s agent), and the types and significance of any ancillary services provided.
It seems the courts have applied a relatively low threshold in finding rental activities to rise to the level of a Section 162 trade or business, but it’s also important to note that implications of that designation have changed significantly. One thing is for certain: if the position is taken that the rental activity is a trade or business for the Section 199A deduction, then it needs to be treated as a trade or business in all other aspects, as well, which could mean additional filings (i.e. Forms 1099) and becoming subject to different tax regulations (i.e. interest-limitation rules).
Ultimately, although the Section 199A deduction was implemented as a means of leveling the playing field for the tax impact of entity choice and could potentially offer significant tax savings, in order to take advantage of the deduction, the related activity must first qualify for the deduction.
Reaching this designation is relatively easy for most business operations, but might require more analysis when considering rental activities. There are some options available, such as the safe-harbor and grouping elections, but the related tax impact should be carefully considered prior to making any election.
Be sure to consult with your tax advisor if you have any questions.