Tax inversions have been in the news for several years now, but almost always in the context of a public US company reincorporating in a foreign country to achieve lower tax rates on non-US source income. However, there is another type of inversion, the S corporation inversion, that does not involve any foreign countries but can be an elegant solution to a problem faced my many small and medium-sized businesses operated as S corporations.
Many businesses start as S corporations for good tax reasons, but later in their lifecycle want to convert to a tax partnership (such as an LLC taxed as a partnership) for a variety of business and tax reasons. For example, perhaps a private equity fund or foreign investor (which are both impermissible S corporation shareholders) want to invest in the business and become owners. Another example is where an S corporation wants to grant an equity interest to a key employee in exchange for their past and future services. Oftentimes, the best approach in this case is to grant the employee a “profits interest” in the business, but S corporations cannot grant such interests, while tax partnerships can. Simply converting or merging the S corporation into an LLC taxed as a partnership is not satisfactory, because that transaction would trigger the taxable liquidation of the S corporation.
One method to convert to a tax partnership tax-free, without undergoing an inversion, is the “LLC drop-down,” which entails the S corporation forming a wholly-owned LLC, that is initially a disregarded entity for tax purposes, and transferring all of the S corporation’s assets and business to the new LLC. Once this is accomplished, the new investors can invest in the business by investing into the new LLC, which will become a tax partnership. However, this restructuring is deceptively simple, because migrating the S corporation’s business to the new LLC can create many issues, including (1) migrating employees, payroll, and benefit plans to the new LLC; (2) opening new operating and payroll bank accounts for the new LLC; (3) consulting with insurance agents to obtain coverage for the new LLC; (4) assigning customer, lease, vendor, and other key agreements to the new LLC, which oftentimes requires the counterparty’s consent; (5) transferring or obtaining new licenses and permits for the new LLC to operate the business; and (6) obtaining lender consent.
These headaches can oftentimes be avoided by utilizing an S corporation inversion. The S corporation inversion is accomplished by having the shareholders of the S corporation (“Old S”) transfer their stock to a newly formed S corporation (“New S”) in exchange for all the stock of New S. Old S immediately makes an election to be a qualified subchapter S subsidiary, and so Old S will be disregarded for tax purposes. New S then forms a wholly-owned LLC, which is initially disregarded for tax purposes, and then merges Old S into the new LLC, with new LLC as the survivor of the merger. The merger is without tax consequences, because it’s a merger of two entities, Old S and LLC, that are disregarded for tax purposes. Furthermore, by operation of the Florida merger statute, all of the assets, liabilities, contracts, and legal relationships of Old S transfer to LLC and in most circumstances no third party consents are required. Now the old business is in a new LLC that can take on new investors in a tax partnership format and without many of the headaches of migrating a business to a new legal entity. For guidance on this structure, see Treasury Regulation Section 1.1361-5(b)(c), Example 2.
Michael J. Wilson