In order to be tax deductible, compensation must be a reasonable payment for services. Smaller companies, whose employees frequently hold significant ownership interests, are particularly vulnerable to IRS attack on their compensation deductions.

Reasonable compensation is generally defined as the amount that would ordinarily be paid for like services by like enterprises under like circumstances. This broad definition is supplemented, for purposes of determining whether compensation is deductible as an ordinary and necessary expense, by a number of more specific factors expressed in varying forms by the IRS, the Tax Court and the Circuit Courts of Appeal, and generally relating to the type and extent of services provided, the financial concerns of the company, and the nature of the relationship between the employee and the employer.

Why IRS Is Interested

A chief concern behind the IRS’s keen interest in what a company calls “compensation” is the possibility that what is being labeled compensation is in fact a constructive dividend. If employees with ownership interests are being paid excessive amounts by the company, the IRS may challenge compensation deductions on the grounds that what is being called deductible compensation is, in fact, a nondeductible dividend.

Another area of concern for the IRS is the payment of personal expenses of an employee that are disguised as businesses expenses. There, the business is trying to obtain a business expense deduction without the offsetting tax paid by the employee in recognizing income. In such cases, a business and its owners can end up with a triple loss after an IRS audit: taxable income to the individual, no deduction to the business and a tax penalty due from both parties.

Factors Examined

The factors most often examined by the IRS in deciding whether payments are reasonable compensation for services or are, instead, disguised dividend payments, include:

  1. The salary history of the individual employee
  2. Compensation paid by comparable employers to comparable employees
  3. The salary history of other employees of the company
  4. Special employee expertise or efforts
  5. Year-end payments
  6. Independent inactive investor analysis
  7. Deferred compensation plan contributions
  8. Independence of the board of directors
  9. Viewpoint of a hypothetical investor contemplating purchase of the company as to whether such potential investor would be willing to pay the compensation.

Failure to pass the reasonable compensation test will result in the company’s loss of all or part of its deduction. Analysis and examination of a company’s compensation deductions in light of the relevant listed factors can provide the company with the assurance that the compensation it pays will be treated as reasonable — and may in the process prevent the loss of its deductions.

Note: In the case of publicly held corporations, a separate $1 million dollar per person cap is also placed on deductible compensation paid to the CEO and each of the four other highest-paid officers identified for SEC purposes. (Certain types of compensation, including performance-based compensation approved by outside directors, are not included in the $1 million limitation.)

The S Corp Enigma

The opposite side of the reasonable compensation coin is present in the case of some S corporations. By characterizing compensation payments as dividends, the owners of these corporations seek to reduce employment taxes due on amounts paid to them by their companies. In these cases, the IRS attempts to recharacterize dividends as salary if the amounts were, in fact, paid to the shareholders for services rendered to the corporation.

Caution. In the course of performing the compensation-dividend analysis, watch out for contingent compensation arrangements and for compensation that is proportional to stock ownership. While not always indicators that payments are distributions of dividends instead of compensation for services, their presence does suggest the possibility. Compensation plans should not be keyed to ownership interests. Contingent and incentive arrangements are also scrutinized by the IRS. The courts have frequently ruled that a shareholder has a built-in interest in seeing that the company is successful and rewarding him for increasing the value of his own property is inappropriate. Similar to the reasonable compensation test, however, this rule is not hard and fast. Accordingly, the rules followed in each jurisdiction will control there.


Determining whether a shareholder-employee’s compensation is reasonable depends upon many variables, such as the contributions that employee makes to your business, the compensation levels within your industry, and whether an independent investor in your company would accept the employee’s compensation as reasonable.

Please call our office for a more customized analysis of how your particular compensation package fits into the various rules and guidelines. Further examination of your practices not only may help your business better sustain its compensation deductions; it may also help you take advantage of other compensation arrangements and opportunities.