Long before John Edwards became known as a well-coiffed skirt-chasing weasel, he was a well-coiffed successful trial lawyer. He was successful enough to afford good tax advice, so he conducted his law practice in an S corporation.
Back in the old days, professional practices were conducted as sole proprietorships or general partnerships, reportable as self-employment income, subject to the 15.3% self-employment tax up to the FICA base (currently $106,800), and to the 2.9% Medicare portion of the tax to infinity.
When state laws allowed professionals to incorporate, attorneys and accountants quickly noticed that income on S corporation K-1s is not subject to self-employment tax. This makes S corporations a popular way to run a professional practice. The professionals take a “reasonable” salary out of the business (subject to employer and employee FICA and Medicare tax) – enough to not raise IRS eyebrows – and take the rest out as S corporation distributions with no employment tax.
John Edwards did well by this. His law practice generated millions dollars of K-1 earnings in excess of his salary, saving him hundreds of thousands of dollars in payroll and self-employment tax.
Now that he has been reduced to a wealthy target of mockery, Congress is ready to crack down on the John Edwards S corporation tax shelter. The annual “extenders” bill has a provision – almost as absurd as Edwards love life – that will hit professional S corporation K-1 income with self-employment tax. The SE tax will apply when the “principal asset” of the S corporation is the “reputation and skill” of three or fewer professionals – defined for this purpose as “services in the fields of health, law, lobbying, engineering, architecture, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, investment advice or management, or brokerage services.”
Congress doesn’t muss its hair worrying about how taxpayers in multi-owner S corporations are supposed to figure out whether its “principal asset” is the “reputation and skill” of three or fewer owners. However it works, this provision is too late to hurt John Edwards — his reputation isn’t much of an asset anymore.