New IRS Rule Spoils SEP-IRA for Musicians

The SEP-IRA has been a key retirement tool for self-employed and 1099 musicians, but its value just got unexpectedly reduced last month, buried in the details of a 249-page release of new IRS regulations. I’m afraid that many self-employed musicians who read this may want to fund a different type of retirement account or may decide to stop their SEP contributions altogether going forward. If you’re a W-2 musician, this doesn’t apply to you, and if you are strictly a W-2, you weren’t eligible for a SEP anyways.

The new regulations don’t directly change a SEP contribution – it’s still a tax deductible contribution. Self-employed musicians are also eligible for a new 20% tax deduction, called the Qualified Business Income or QBI deduction, officially IRC Section 199A. The QBI Deduction is new for 2018 as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act put into law in December 2017. 

The QBI Deduction is available to pass-through entities, including S-corporations, LLCs, and sole proprietors. You do not have to be incorporated, anyone with self-employment income (including 1099 “independent contractor”) is eligible. For “Specified Service Businesses”, including performing artists such as musicians, the QBI deduction is phased out if your income is above $157,500 (single) or $315,000 (married) for 2018.

(I’ve written about the QBI Deduction for musicians previously on my site HERE, as well as for the International Musician.)

What was a surprise announcement in the January 2019 regulations, some 13 months after Congress signed the new law, is that all self-employed people have to subtract any “employer paid retirement contributions” from their Qualified Business Income. It was previously thought this would only apply to S-corporations. This was not mentioned or hinted at in the legislation or in the regulations the IRS published in August. In fact, many tax software programs are having to be rewritten because of the January announcement. The SEP-IRA, even for a sole proprietor, is considered a type of employer-sponsored retirement plan, even though the employer and the employee are the same person.

It may be easiest to explain this with an example. Let’s say you make $60,000 as a self-employed musician and choose to contribute $10,000 to a SEP IRA. (In this example, I am assuming that your taxable income and your Qualified Business Income are the same, but in some cases, they will be different.) Now, instead of getting the 20% deduction on the $60,000 of Qualified Business Income, worth $12,000 off your income, you have to subtract your SEP contribution of $10,000 to reduce your QBI to $50,000. Now your QBI deduction will be $10,000, $2,000 less than if you had not made the SEP contribution.

Your SEP contribution reduced the value of your QBI deduction by $2,000, so instead of adding a $10,000 benefit, your SEP contribution only increased your deductions by $8,000. Another way of looking at this: if you are eligible for the QBI, you are only getting 80% of the value of a SEP Contribution, but 100% of your SEP contribution will be taxable when you withdraw it in the future.

And that’s a problem. The $10,000 you contributed to a SEP only provided an increase of $8,000 in deductions, but the full $10,000 will be taxable when you withdraw it later in retirement, plus the tax on any growth. Who wants to get an $8,000 deduction today and immediately have a $10,000 future tax liability? 

You might pay less in lifetime taxes by not making the SEP contribution, receiving 100% of the QBI deduction and then investing your $10,000 in a taxable account. The growth of the taxable account, by the way, could be treated as long term capital gains, which for most taxpayers is at a lower rate than the ordinary income rates applied to growth of your SEP (when withdrawn).

There are three additional solutions which you might consider rather than a funding SEP, given this new rule.

1. Traditional IRA. The Traditional IRA contribution will reduce your personal taxes, unlike a SEP, which is considered an employer sponsored plan. The SEP reduces the amount of your QBI deduction, but the Traditional IRA does not. However, there are two issues with the Traditional IRA:

  • The contribution limit is only $5,500 for 2018 ($6,500 over age 50). With a SEP, you could contribute as much as $55,000, ten times more than a Traditional IRA.
  • If you or your spouse are covered by any employer retirement plan, your eligibility to deduct a Traditional IRA contribution depends on being under income limits.  (Details here.)

If you are single and are not covered by any employer plan (or married and neither spouse is eligible for a company plan), then there are no income restrictions on a Traditional IRA. And if you were planning on contributing less than $5,500 to your SEP, just skip the SEP altogether and fund a Traditional IRA so you can receive the full QBI deduction.

If you are eligible for both a Traditional IRA and a SEP, I would always fund the IRA first to the maximum, and only then make a contribution to the SEP.

2. Roth 401(k). A Traditional 401(k) or Profit Sharing Plan, like a SEP, can also land you in the penalty box for the QBI as a self-employed person. However, if you set up an Individual 401(k) plan that allows for Roth 401(k) contributions, then you will receive the full QBI deduction, even if you put $18,500 into your Roth 401(k). 

Of course, you won’t get a tax deduction for the Roth contributions you make, but that account will grow tax-free going forward, which is a lot better than a taxable account. It’s a great option if you anticipate being in the same or similar tax bracket in retirement as you have today. The only problem is that unlike a Traditional IRA, you cannot establish a 401(k) today for the previous year (2018). 

But you can establish one for this year, and if you’d like to do so, I can help you with this. 

3. Spouse’s 401(k)/IRA. If you are self employed, but your spouse has a regular W-2 job, have your spouse increase their 401(k) contributions through their employer. That won’t ding your QBI Deduction and will reduce your joint taxable income dollar for dollar. If your spouse is eligible for a Traditional IRA – including a Spousal IRA if they do not have any earned income – that would also be preferable to having the self-employed spouse fund a SEP-IRA.

I do not want to suggest anything to discourage musicians from saving for retirement! But when one type of retirement account will reduce other tax deductions, I want to make sure that all my clients are informed to make the best choices for their situation. Feel free to email or call me if you’d like more information.

This article does not offer or imply individual tax advice; please consult your tax professional for information regarding your personal situation. 

Musicians and the QBI Deduction

This year, there is a new 20% tax deduction for self-employed individuals and pass through entities, commonly called the QBI (Qualified Business Income) deduction, officially IRC Section 199A. While most musicians who file schedule C will be eligible for this deduction, high earners – those making over $157,500 single or $315,000 married – will see this deduction phased out to zero, because they are considered a Specified Service Trade or Business (SSTB).

See: New 20% Pass-Through Tax Deduction

Professions that are considered an SSTB include health, law, accounting, athletics, performing arts, and any company whose principal asset is the skill or reputation of one or more of its employees. That’s pretty broad.

Some musicians may have income that is from an SSTB and other income which is not. For example, consider a musician who has a business managing tours and logistics. If she performs a concert, clearly she is working in an SSTB as a performing artist. If she is making a profit from organizing and promoting a concert tour, that might be considered a different industry.

This possibility of splitting up income into different streams has occupied many accountants this year, to enable high-earning business owners to qualify for the QBI deduction for their non-SSTB income. Since this is a brand new deduction for 2018, this is uncharted territory for taxpayers and financial professionals.

In August, the IRS posted new rules which will greatly limit your ability to carve off income away from an SSTB. Here are some of the details:

  • If an entity has revenue of under $25 million, and received 10% or more of its revenue from an SSTB, then the entire entity is considered an SSTB. If their revenue is over $25 million, the threshold is 5%
  • An endorsement by a performing artist, or the use of your name, likeness, signature, trademark, voice, etc., shall not be considered a separate profession. If you are in an SSTB, an endorsement will also be considered part of the SSTB.
  • 80/50 rule. If a company shares 50% or more ownership with an SSTB, and receives at least 80% of its revenue from that SSTB, it will be considered part of the SSTB. So, if our musician only organizes tours for herself, then that business will be considered part of her SSTB. If the Tour business has at least 21% in revenue from other bands, then it could be considered a separate entity and qualify for the QBI deduction.

Business owners in the top tax bracket of 37% for 2018 (making over $500,000 single or $600,000 married), might be considering forming a C-corporation if they are running into issues with the SSTB. While a C-Corp is not eligible for the QBI deduction, the federal income tax rate for a C-Corp has been lowered to a flat 21% this year.

Of course, the challenge with a C-Corp is the potential for double taxation: the company pays 21% tax on its earnings, and then the dividend paid to the owner may be taxed again from 15% to 23.8% (including the 3.8% Medicare surtax on Net Investment Income.)

Still, there may be some benefits to a C-corp versus a pass-through entity, including the ability to retain profits, being able to deduct state and local taxes without the $10,000 cap, or the ability to deduct charitable donations without itemizing.

If you have questions about the QBI Deduction, the Specified Service Business definition, or other self-employment tax issues for musicians, we can help you understand the new rules. We want to help you keep as much of your money as possible, so let’s talk about how we might be able to help you.

20% Pass Through Deduction for Musicians

You’ve probably heard about the new 20% tax deduction for “Pass Through” entities under the  Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), and have wondered if musicians qualify. For those who are self-employed (1099, not W-2) here are five frequently asked questions:

1. Do I have to form a corporation in order to qualify for this benefit?
No. The good news is that you simply need to have Schedule C income, whether you are a sole proprietor (including 1099 independent contractor), or an LLC, Partnership, or S-Corporation.

2. How does it work?
If you report your music earnings on Schedule C, your Qualified Business Income (QBI) may be eligible for this deduction of 20%, meaning that only 80% of your net income will be taxable. Only business income – and not investment income – will qualify for the deduction. Although we call this a deduction, please note that you do not have to “itemize”, the QBI deduction is a new type of below the line deduction to your taxable income. The deduction starts in the 2018 tax year; 2017 is under the old rules.

There are some restrictions on the deduction. For example, your deduction is limited to 20% of QBI or 20% of your household’s taxable ordinary income (i.e. after standard/itemized deductions and excluding capital gains), whichever is less. If 100% of your taxable income was considered QBI, your deduction might be for less than 20% of QBI. If you are owner of a S-corp, you will be expected to pay yourself an appropriate salary, and that income will not be eligible for the QBI. If you have guaranteed draws as an LLC, that income would also be excluded from the QBI deduction.

3. What is the Service business restriction?
In order to prevent a lot of doctors, lawyers, and other high earners from quitting as employees and coming back as contractors to claim the deduction, Congress excluded from this deduction “Specified Service Businesses”, which includes not only health, law, accounting, financial services, athletics, and consulting, but also performing arts. High earning self-employed people in one of these professions will not be eligible for the 20% deduction.

4. Who is considered a high earner under the Specified Service restrictions?
If you are a performing artist and your taxable income is below $157,500 single or $315,000 married, you are eligible for the full 20% deduction. The QBI deduction will then phaseout for income above these levels over the next $50,000 single or $100,000 married. Musicians making above $207,500 single or $415,000 married are excluded completely from the 20% QBI deduction. Please note that these amounts refer to your total household income, not the amount of QBI income.

5. Should I try to change my W-2 job into a 1099 job?
First of all, that may be impossible. Each employer is charged with correctly determining your status as an employee or independent contractor. These are not simply interchangeable categories. The IRS has a list of characteristics for being an employee versus an independent contractor. Primarily, if an employer is able to dictate how you do your work, then you are an employee. It would not be appropriate for an orchestra, university, or contractor, to list one worker as a W-2 and someone else doing the similar work as a 1099.

Second, as a W-2 employee, you have many benefits. Your employer pays half of your Social Security and Medicare payroll tax (half is 7.65%). You might think that 20% is more than 7.65%, but remember that a 20% deduction in taxable income in the 24% tax bracket only saves you 4.8% in tax. That’s less than the value of having your employer pay their 7.65% of the payroll tax.

Employees may be eligible for other benefits including health insurance, vacation, state unemployment benefits, workers comp for injuries, and most importantly, the right to unionize. The Lancaster Symphony spent eight years in court, unsuccessfully trying to assert that musicians were not employees, to prevent them from unionizing. You would have a lot to lose by not being an employee, so I am not recommending anyone try to change their employment status.

Still, I expect many of you have Schedule C income from teaching private lessons, playing weddings, or other one-time gigs. If you do have self-employment income, you should benefit from the new tax law as long as you are under the income levels listed above. If you do other related work in music – publishing, repairing instruments, making accessories, etc. – that income might not be considered a Specified Service, so be sure to talk with your tax advisor about your individual situation. We will continue to study this area looking for ways to help musicians like you take advantage of every benefit you can legally obtain.