Employee stock options and 409a valuations

This article will explain all you need to know about stock options and 409A valuations, along with what makes them important.

A lot of companies issue employee stock options to get the best talent in their company and retain them for longer. And these options, in fact, can be worth a lot of money which is why it is a great way to retain employees. It is normally used by owners as an overall part of their employee compensation package. This benefits both the company and the employee. But the benefit only comes in when all the rules are followed, including getting the stock options with a 409A valuation performed on time.

This article will explain all you need to know about stock options and 409A valuations, along with what makes them important.

Employee Stock Options

Employee stock options, also called ESOs, are the kind of equity compensation offered to the employees and executives as compensation commonly used by many companies. Basically, instead of offering the shares directly, the company offers derivative options on the stock. These options come in the form of regular call options and offer the employees the right to purchase the company’s stock at a specified rate for a defined period of time. Each of the terms of the ESO is mentioned in an employee stock options agreement which is prepared by the company.

Generally, the most prominent benefit of stock options is offered when the stock price of the company rises above the exercise price. Just to be clear, stock options issued by a company cannot be sold by the employees to anyone else. So, when the stock price rises above the call option exercise price, the options are exercised and the holders obtain the company’s stock at a discount. In such a situation, the holder has the choice to instantly sell the stock for a profit or hold onto the stock over time.

Moreover, stock option benefits are commonly associated with startup companies, which may issue them in order to reward early employees when and if the company goes public. In short, stock options are offered by fast-growing companies as an incentive for employees to work towards growing the value of the company’s shares. It also acts as an incentive for those employees to stay with the company. But if the employee decides to leave the company in between, the options are typically canceled (according to the vesting schedule).

There are two main stock types in the ESOs, including:

  • Incentive stock options (ISOs): This is also known as qualified or statutory options and is normally offered to top management and key employees. In short, they get preferential tax treatment in many cases as the IRS treats gains on options as long-term capital gains.
  • Non-qualified stock options (NSOs): These options are granted to the employees at all levels of the company as well as to consultants and board members. Also called non-statutory stock options, profits on these are recognized as ordinary income and are taxed as such.

Tax differences for employee stock options

From the above, you know that each kind of employee stock options are taxed differently. So let us understand how each one of them is taxed in detail.

Tax differences for employee stock options

#1 Taxation of nonqualified stock options

When the NSOs are exercised, the difference between the market price of the stock and the grant or exercise price is counted as ordinary earned income. This is even if the employee exercises their options and continues to hold them. Earned income is always subject to payroll taxes, Medicare and Social Security, along with regular income taxes.

An employee should remember to exercise their employee stock options based on their own tax decisions. With this said, if they exercise the NSOs in the year where they do not have any other earned income, the person will be paying a lot of payroll taxes than they would be paying otherwise.

Along with the payroll taxes, all the income from the spread is subject to ordinary income taxes. Also, remember that along with payroll taxes, the income from the sale is also subject to ordinary income taxes. If the employee holds the stock after exercise, and the additional gains beyond the spread are achieved, the additional gains are taxed as capital gain (or capital loss, if the price went down).

#2 Taxation of incentive stock options

ISOs are very different from NSOs, as they are not subject to payroll taxes. However, they are subject to taxes and it is a preference item for AMT (alternative minimum tax) calculations. In fact, when an employee exercises their ISOs, there are a few different tax possibilities. Each has been shared below:

  • The ISOs are exercised and sold within the same calendar year: In this case, the tax is paid on the difference between the market price at sale and the grant price at the ordinary income tax rate.
  • The ISOs are exercised but not sold instantly: Here, the difference between the grant price and the market price becomes an AMT preference item, so exercising ISOs might mean that the employee will have to pay the AMT (alternative minimum tax). Credit for excess AMT tax can also be offered, as it would take years for the employee to use the credit. In case the employee holds the shares for one year from the exercise date (2 years from the grant date of the option), then the difference between the grant price and market price when the options are sold is taxed as long-term gains instead of as ordinary income. Additionally, if the ordinary income exceeds the AMT tax rate of the person, they would get to use some of the previously accumulated AMT credit. For high-income earners, holding the stock for the required time period can mean paying tax on the gain at 15% vs 20%. But keep in mind that there are risks to this strategy and should be evaluated properly.
Basically, the tax rules can be complex for some. That is when professional advice is always needed. With this clear, we can now talk about employee stock options and the 409a valuations.

IRC 409a Valuation for Companies

A business valuation is the process of finding the economic value of a company. It helps in getting the fair market value (FMV) of the business, which is the current value of the company, which is key when using ESOs. And the right way to get a business valuation is with a 409A valuation.

But why a 409A valuation? Let us understand more.

What is IRC Section 409a?

There was a huge scandal that took place in 2001 with Eron, where executives were taking advantage of equity loopholes and avoiding paying the right amount of tax that had to be paid to the government. The IRS subsequently introduced Section 409A in 2005 to prevent this from happening. And it was in 2009 when the 409A was finalized. It comes with a framework for private companies to follow when valuing private stocks.

When the valuation is conducted by an unaffiliated or independent party, it establishes a safe harbor, meaning the 409A is presumed to be “reasonable” by the IRS. So, valuation is not something that you can take lightly. When your company doesn’t adhere to 409A rules, and the equity gets mispriced, the IRS can assess penalties. And the people who end up paying these include the shareholders and employees. So, it is better to follow the rules.

But why do you need a 409A valuation for the stock options? The next sections would help you understand.

Why does a company need a 409a Valuation?

If you are about to give out stock options, you need the 409A valuation done as it is an IRS requirement. Getting the 409A valuation allows your business to follow all the tax laws and avoid any of the IRS audit sessions that can cause your company legal troubles, tax issues, and even interfere in the company’s functions if problems arise. Additionally, the need to hire new lawyers and consultants for defending your company while the case drags would cost you a lot more.

And the worst part is that the employees in your company would suffer the most with the immediate tax issues for them, which is not good for any company. It would leave a really bad impression on the employees and could affect company morale. And in all this, it is important for you to remember that you offered the stock options to your employees to reward them and not leave them with huge penalties from the IRS.

In short, a 409a valuation would protect your employees from any tax issues that might come up in the future. It would also protect you and your company from huge bills from lawsuits. So, if you are paying for a 409A valuation, which you find costly, you will be avoiding the issue of spending 10 times more later in such matters.

Stock options and 409a valuations

From the above, you know that the stock options are a form of equity compensation offered to the employees in the company. It is important for the employees to pay the exercise price to get the benefit of the option. Once the employee exercises the option, they get the stock in the company and can sell it or hold onto it for later.

Now, before a company can offer stock options, it has to be set at the right price as per IRS standards. For this, the company has to get the 409A valuation done. Section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code governs the taxation of deferred compensation. However, some stock options that satisfy certain conditions are considered to be “stock rights”, that are excludable from section 409A, rather than “deferred compensation” subject to section 409A.

Nonetheless, if any of the conditions that are important to qualify for the exclusion are not satisfied, the stock options will be regarded as deferred compensation subject to section 409A, such that the options would have to either conform to the section 409A or suffer the consequences of failing section 409A.

The following questions and answers explain the section 409A considerations that companies need to be aware of when issuing stock options.

Are stock options subject to a 409a Valuation?

To be clear, the stock options that qualify as ISOs are not subject to Section 409A. NSOs, however, have to follow the rules, unless they are considered as “stock rights” excludable from the Section 409A provided they meet each of the following conditions:

  • The stock option is a right to purchase “service recipient stock”, which is the common stock of the corporation for which the owner performs direct services or defined eligible parent entities that possess at least 50% of the voting power or value of the service recipient corporation’s ownership. Options on preferred stock aren’t section 409A-excludable stock rights even if all of the other conditions identified below are satisfied.
  • The exercise price of the stocks can never be lower than the FMV of the underlying stock on the date that the option is granted. Using section 409A, you can get the value of the stock that would be readily tradable on an established market with certain safe harbor valuation approaches.
  • The number of shares subject to the stock option has to be fixed on the initial granting date. And this date can be no earlier than the date when the corporation completes the corporate action required to formulate a legally limiting right to the options for the service provider.
  • The option does not hold any feature for the deferral of compensation beyond the later of the exercise or disposition of the option or the time the stock acquired pursuant to the option becomes substantially vested. The taxable income resulting from the exercise or disposition of the option must be fully includable as income at the time of exercise/disposition of the option.
  • The exercise or transfer of the option is subject to taxation under section 83 and Reg. section 1.83-7.

In case the stock options don’t satisfy any of these mentioned conditions and are still subject to section 409A, what does it mean? Well, options that are subjected to the section 409A has to either:

  • Be designed to conform to section 409A requirements and rules, or
  • Suffer the potential adverse tax consequences of failing to conform to the rules.

Are stock options considered deferred compensation under section 409a?

Section 409A offers that some compensation you defer is however currently taxed. The amounts that are deferred under a nonqualified deferred compensation plan are currently taxed if not subject to a “substantial risk of forfeiture”. A nonqualified deferred compensation plan includes virtually any agreement, program, method, or other arrangements that offer for deferral, where the compensation is not paid until a later year.

This includes plans like compensation agreements, bonuses, or employment agreements where the cash is paid later. It also includes supplemental executive retirement plans, also called SERPs, and other nonqualified retirement plans. This also includes performance share plans, phantom stock, restricted stock plans, stock appreciation rights, and long-term or multi-year commission or bonus programs.

In fact, any kind of deferred compensation agreement is covered. This means that the stock options offered to employees in a company is a deferred compensation plan and has to have the 409A valuations performed before it is given out.

Possible ways to get 409a valuation for Stock Options

This is something that early-stage companies and founders must keep in mind if they want to avoid having to pay tax fines to the IRS. Find a credible 409A valuation source if you’re an early-stage company issuing options and want to take advantage of the safe harbor. Before you can issue your first common stock option, you must complete your 409A valuation.

Possible ways to get 409a valuation for Stock Options

Here is a basic summary of what a 409a valuation looks like for stock options:

Type Basis for Pricing
Stock Option Exercise PriceCommon Share Price
Common Share PriceTypically 20-50% of Preferred Price
Preferred Share PricePrice at funding round less DLOM

Independent Appraisal Method

The easiest option to get a 409a value is to use Eqvista’s “Independent Estimate” process, which involves an independent, expert appraisal of the company’s FMV. This method allows the law to establish a rebuttable presumption of reasonableness for a professional appraisal of a company’s stock’s FMV. This means that if the firm is ever audited by the IRS, the IRS, not the company, would bear the burden of proving that the technique utilized was not a “reasonable valuation approach”. This significantly minimizes the chances of an IRS FMV challenge being successful.

Common Valuation Methods

There are a few common valuation methods that come under the independent appraisal method which are as follows:

  • Market Approach – The OPM backsolve approach is commonly used by valuation providers when your firm raises a financing round. New investors are likely to have paid fair market value for the shares, but preferred stock is given to them. As a result, modifications must be made when calculating the FMV of common stock. Other market-based methodologies evaluate a company’s equity worth using financial data from comparable public companies, such as revenue, net income, and EBITDA.
  • Income Approach – The straightforward income approach is frequently used by valuation providers for organizations with significant sales and positive cash flow. In using this method, the FMV of your company is calculated as total assets minus liabilities.
  • Asset Approach – The asset approach iis frequently utilized for early-stage enterprises that have not yet raised funds and are not yet profitable. To determine a proper valuation, this process evaluates a company’s net asset value.

Prepare necessary data and information to perform 409a valuation

Essentially, the 409A regulations apply whenever there is a deferral of remuneration (where an employee has a legal claim to compensation that will be paid in a later taxable year during the current taxable year). A 409A valuation is an appraisal of your company’s common stock and it’s essential if you want to give your staff stock options. It’s best if your 409A valuation is done by an independent third party. When you maintain your cap tables and keep them up-to-date, and take the time to acquire all of the necessary data and documentation for the valuation, the process is more likely to go well.

Get your 409a valuation done every 12 months

Valuations under IRC 409A are valid for a maximum of 12 months after the effective date, or until a “material event” occurs. A material event is something that potentially has an impact on the stock price of a corporation. Qualifying funding is the most typical significant event for the majority of early-stage firms, and consists of a negotiated sale of common stock, preferred stock, or convertible debt to independent, institutional investors.

Restricted Stock Units and 409a

It may be a good idea for your company to change your plan from offering NSOs to offering RSUs to the employees to avoid the 409A valuation procedure. This is because restricted stock units (RSU) are not subject to section 409A. Additionally, the recipients can also benefit from tax treatment offered for the RSUs. They can file an election under the Section 83(b) of the Code to be taxed in the year the election is made on the difference between the purchase price and the FMV of the shares on the date of grant, rather than being taxed on the difference between the purchase price and the FMV as the stock vests.

409a Violation & Penalties

Let us say you still decide to give out stock options to your employees, and in this case, you have to get a 409A valuation done. If you don’t conduct a proper company valuation when issuing these options, you would not be eligible for 409a safe harbor protection. As mentioned above as well, if penalties are handed out, the employees and shareholders would have to pay them, which include:

  • All deferred compensation from the current and preceding years becomes taxable immediately
  • Accrued interest on the revised taxable amount
  • An additional tax of 20 percent on all deferred compensation

Many owners tend to ignore the need to get a 409A valuation due to the high price. But just to be clear, a startup would have to pay a minimum of $1,000 to $3,000 for a 409A valuation. Even though this may be a high amount in the beginning, it is a worthwhile investment to avoid any penalties later on.

Let us take an example to understand this better by assuming you did not spend money on a valuation as you found it too expensive. And you end up granting 2,000 stock options at $3 per share (as per your valuation) without getting a 409A valuation done.

In the future, the IRS can investigate this option grating price and evaluate your business via an audit. Let’s say they determine the actual stock price on the grant date to be $5 per share. From then on, the share price may have increased a further $5 when the audit of the IRS started, and with the employees having vested their options, the employees would have to do two things:

  • Immediately clear the income tax payments on the difference between the incorrect strike price ($3) and the current value ($10), which is $7 per share for the 2,000 shares they received. This would give the total amount of $14,000, even if the employee has exercised the option or not. Additionally, if the employee comes under the tax bracket of the 33% income tax rate, they would have to pay a $4,620 income tax bill too.
  • Pay the penalty which is equal to 20% of the price difference. In this case, it is 20% of $14,000 which is a $2,800 penalty which has to be paid to the IRS as well.

Along with this, the IRS would add interest and raise the total bill of $7,240 for one person to something higher. But in case the company gets the 409A valuation before all this happens, the real value of the shares would be $5 per share, and the employee would be able to delay the payment of the tax until they exercise the stock option and purchase the stock. And this delay could be many years after the audit is performed by the IRS.

For instance, the employee purchases the shares when it has a value of $10. The tax owed by the employee would be based on $7 per year, and with the tax bracket of 33%, the total tax bill will be just $4,620 for $14,000. In short, it’s better to have a proper 409a valuation done to avoid these headaches later on for both the company and employees.

Frequently Asked Questions on 409A Valuation and Stock Options

Many companies use stock options as a way to compensate their employees, but did you know that issuing stock options can affect your 409A valuation? Here is a list of the commonly asked questions on 409A valuations and their effects on stock options and your company.

Does 409A apply to stock options?

Companies issue stock options to employees as a part of their compensation package. Hence, as per the IRS, before a company issues a stock option, it must comply with the applicable 409A valuation procedures. This is because the strike price or exercise price of stock options is derived from the fair market value of the common stocks of a startup.

Are stock options exempt from 409A?

In general, stock options that fall under incentive stock options (ISOs) must comply with the 409A valuation procedures. However, if the company decides to use non-qualified stock options (NSOs), then it is excludable from section 409A until certain conditions are met. Be sure to connect with Eqvista’s expert to find out which option scheme you should comply with.

How do you avoid 409A with a phantom stock plan?

A phantom stock plan is a compensation scheme between the company and the employee wherein the awards are payable at the time of vesting. Thereby, it helps to avoid 409A valuation by following the short-term deferral rule. This rule states that the award will be initiated within two and a half months after the completion of the tax year in which the vesting date is scheduled.

Is the strike price the same as the 409A valuation?

The 409A valuation report is meant to help the company determine the fair market value of the common stocks of a private company. Based on the FMV of the common share, the strike price or the exercise price of the stock options are derived.

While there is a strong connection between the strike price and 409A valuation, accurate 409A reporting is essential. Get in touch with Eqvista’s experts to assist you with the entire process.

Start your 409a Valuation process with Eqvista

From everything we have covered, it is understood that you should have a 409A valuation done on time and by the right firm. This means that you do not just have to find a firm that can do your valuation, but the firm that will offer you the safe harbor status through a 409a valuation.

To guarantee that the safe harbor is provided and that you do not spend a lot on a 409A valuation, Eqvista is a great choice. We offer 409A valuations keeping in mind the IRS regulations without creating a hole in your pocket. In fact, our 409A valuation services start at $990 based on the stage that your company is in. Why so low? Eqvista aims to help companies find an affordable solution for managing their equity compensation, and work to grow with your company.

Additionally, we also offer a great cap table application. So, you can easily have all the shares of your company managed and even get your 409a valuation, all in one place.

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