Understanding the RSU Tax Rate: A Guide for Startup Founders and Business Owners‍

Casey Fenton

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Imagine you're in the final rounds of closing a deal with a top-tier candidate for your startup. As you discuss compensation, their eyes light up at the mention of RSUs—Restricted Stock Units. It's the golden ticket, the promise of shared success. But hold on a minute; do both you and your future employee fully understand the tax implications of this enticing offer? Misjudging the RSU tax rate can turn that golden ticket into a ticking time bomb for unexpected financial obligations. This guide is your map to navigate the complex world of RSU taxation, ensuring that the financial path you're paving for your employees is truly paved with gold.

How RSUs Are Taxed: The Basics

Understanding the tax mechanics surrounding RSUs is your first stepping stone in making sound financial decisions for your company and your employees. It's not as simple as saying, "RSUs are taxed as income." There are several stages and nuances you need to be aware of to effectively manage this form of compensation.

Vesting and Taxable Income

As soon as RSUs vest, they become taxable. What this means is the fair market value (FMV) of these shares at the time of vesting is treated as additional income for your employee. This FMV is not merely an abstract concept; it’s a specific dollar value that is reported to the IRS and becomes part of the employee’s gross income for that tax year.

Withholding Mechanics

Your responsibility as an employer doesn't end with merely granting RSUs. You are also the withholding agent, required by the IRS to withhold a portion of the RSUs for tax purposes. This is generally done through the "sell-to-cover" method. Essentially, you sell enough of the vested shares to cover the tax obligations, and the remaining shares are transferred to the employee. This withholding covers not only federal taxes but also any applicable state and local taxes, as well as Social Security and Medicare contributions.

Tax Reporting

When it comes to reporting, the IRS will be keen on two particular forms: W-2 and 1099-B. The income from the vested RSUs will be reported on the employee’s W-2 form, contributing to their overall income tax liability. When the employee eventually sells the shares, a 1099-B form will be generated to report the sale. However, it’s crucial to note that the 1099-B may not include the cost basis, which is essentially the FMV on the date of vesting that had already been taxed. Employees must adjust this manually on their tax returns to avoid double taxation.

Brokerage Account Facilitation

Typically, RSUs are held in a brokerage account administered by a third party. This account is set up in the employee's name, and it is through this channel that vested shares and subsequent sales are managed. Your employees will receive annual statements from this account, which they will use when completing their tax returns.

The Impact of Holding Period: Short-term vs Long-term Capital Gains

The decision to sell RSU shares immediately after they vest or to hold onto them for an extended period can have significant tax implications for your employees. Here's a more nuanced look at how holding periods affect the taxes owed on RSU gains, allowing you to better guide your employees' choices.

The One-Year Mark

You might already know that holding onto shares for more than one year shifts taxation from short-term to long-term capital gains. But why is this one-year threshold so vital? The main reason is the rate differential. Short-term capital gains are taxed at the employee’s ordinary income rate, which can be as high as 37%. Long-term capital gains benefit from a more favorable tax treatment, with rates maxing out at 20% for the highest-income earners.

Calculating Gains and Losses

When your employee decides to sell their RSU shares, they'll need to calculate their gains or losses. The gain is calculated by subtracting the cost basis—which is the FMV on the date of vesting—from the selling price. If the shares are sold at a higher price than the cost basis, the difference is the capital gain. If they're sold for less, it's a capital loss.

Taxation Timing

Here’s something that often catches people off-guard: the clock for determining short-term or long-term gains starts ticking from the vesting date, not from the date the RSUs were granted. This is critical information to share with your employees because holding onto the shares even a day less than a year makes a significant difference in the applicable tax rate.

Offsetting Gains with Losses

An often overlooked aspect of RSU taxation in the context of capital gains is that these gains can be offset by capital losses from other investments. If an employee has realized capital losses, these can neutralize the impact of short-term or long-term gains from RSUs, effectively reducing their overall tax burden.

Qualified Dividends

If your company pays dividends on its shares, those dividends are also subject to taxation. If the employee holds the shares for at least 60 days during the 121-day period that starts 60 days before the ex-dividend date, then the dividends are considered "qualified" and can be taxed at the long-term capital gains rate, another reason holding shares longer can be advantageous.

International Taxation and RSUs

The moment your business crosses international boundaries, the complexity of RSU taxation multiplies. Different countries have varying regulations, tax rates, and reporting requirements. Here's what you need to be aware of when navigating international taxation as it relates to RSUs:

Bilateral Tax Treaties

First and foremost, check if there are bilateral tax treaties between the United States and the countries where your employees reside. Such treaties could offer certain tax advantages or clarify the withholding obligations for you as an employer. For instance, the U.S.-Canada tax treaty helps prevent double taxation, laying down rules on how RSUs are taxed between the two nations.

Country-Specific Tax Regulations

Different countries have unique approaches to RSU taxation.

  • United Kingdom: In the UK, RSUs are subject to income tax and National Insurance contributions at the time of vesting. However, Capital Gains Tax (CGT) will only apply when the shares are sold, based on the increase in value from the time of vesting.

  • India: Indian residents are taxed at the time of vesting based on the FMV of the RSUs. Additionally, if the shares are sold, any gains are subject to short-term or long-term capital gains tax depending on the holding period.

Withholding and Reporting Obligations

If your employees are stationed abroad, you'll need to navigate not only U.S. tax withholding requirements but also local withholding rules. In some countries, employers are not required to withhold taxes on RSUs, making it the employee's responsibility to report and pay any due taxes. Understanding these nuances is crucial to remaining in compliance with international tax laws.

Currency Fluctuations

Another aspect often overlooked is the impact of currency fluctuations on RSU value and, consequently, on tax liability. For example, an employee in Europe may see the euro value of their U.S.-based RSUs change dramatically due to currency shifts, affecting the amount to be reported for taxation.

Expatriate and Inpatriate Taxation

If you have U.S. employees working abroad or foreign nationals working in the U.S., specific rules and regulations might apply. Often, these "expatriates" and "inpatriates" are subject to taxation in both their home country and the country of employment, requiring careful planning to avoid double taxation.

RSUs and Tax Planning: Strategies for Minimization

Navigating the RSU tax landscape can feel like walking through a minefield. But don't worry, there are strategies you can employ to mitigate tax burdens. Knowing these can make all the difference in how RSUs affect both your company’s bottom line and your employees' financial well-being.

1. Strategic Timing for Vesting

One of the most effective ways to minimize taxes on RSUs is to strategically plan the timing of their vesting. If an employee anticipates being in a lower tax bracket in a future year, it might be beneficial to negotiate the vesting schedule accordingly. However, this requires careful planning and an open dialogue between you and the employee.

2. Net Share Settlement

Some companies offer a net share settlement option, where enough shares are sold at vesting to cover the tax liability, and the employee receives the remaining shares. While this doesn't eliminate taxes, it eases the immediate financial burden on the employee, as they don't need to come up with additional cash to cover the tax bill.

3. Asset Allocation and Diversification

Having a significant portion of one's wealth tied up in a single company's stock is risky. Encourage your employees to sell some of their vested RSUs to diversify their portfolios. While selling shares will trigger a tax event, diversification could reduce financial risks and therefore might be worth the tax impact in the long run.

4. Tax Loss Harvesting

Tax loss harvesting involves selling underperforming investments to realize losses, which can then offset capital gains. If your employee has capital gains from RSUs, they could potentially offset this by selling other investments that are currently at a loss. This strategy requires meticulous record-keeping and, often, consultation with a tax advisor.

5. Donating RSUs to Charity

For those charitably inclined, consider donating vested RSU shares to a non-profit organization. Not only does this move potentially offer significant tax benefits, like avoiding capital gains tax and becoming eligible for a tax deduction, but it also serves a philanthropic cause.

6. Consider Roth Conversions

If an employee expects to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, converting some pre-tax retirement assets into a Roth IRA could be beneficial. While this incurs a tax liability in the year of conversion, it might balance out the additional income from vested RSUs, making it a strategy worth considering.

Key Takeaways

Offering RSUs is more than just dangling a financial carrot; it’s a commitment to your employees' long-term financial well-being. Understanding the RSU tax rate is pivotal for both you and your employees. Federal and state income tax, the impact of holding periods, and international taxation all play roles in determining how much tax is owed. As a responsible business owner or startup founder, the more knowledgeable you are about these rates, the better equipped you'll be to offer fair and motivating compensation packages.

As always consult with your tax advisors, and make sure you’re ready to guide your team through the complex, but rewarding, world of RSUs and their associated tax rates. Alternatively, you may check out RSU learning resources at Upstock and book a demo to see this unique equity compensation format in action. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Casey Fenton

Founder, Upstock & Couchsurfing, AI and Equity Innovator

Casey Fenton, the founder of Upstock & Couchsurfing and an AI and equity innovator, has revolutionized how we perceive and implement equity in the workplace. His foresight in creating platforms that not only connect people but also align their interests towards communal and corporate prosperity has established him as a pivotal figure in technology and community building. Casey speaks worldwide on topics including ownership mindset, worker equity, With Upstock and Couchsurfing, he has demonstrated an unparalleled expertise in harnessing technology for the betterment of community interaction and organizational benefits.

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