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Wolters Kluwer Interview: A Two-Part Q&A Series on the Section 199A Deduction (Part 1)

Thomas Zanata

Wolters Kluwer Interview: A Two-Part Q&A Series on the Section 199A Deduction (Part 1)

Republicans’ 2017 overhaul of the tax code created a new 20-percent deduction of qualified business income (QBI), subject to certain limitations, for pass-through entities (sole proprietorships, partnerships, limited liability companies, or S corporations). The controversial QBI deduction—also called the “pass-through” deduction—has remained an ongoing topic of debate among lawmakers, tax policy experts, and stakeholders.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) ( P.L. 115-97), enacted at the end of 2017, created the new Section 199A QBI deduction for noncorporate taxpayers, effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017. However, under current law the QBI deduction will sunset after 2025. In addition to the QBI deduction’s impermanence, its complexity and ambiguous statutory language have created many questions for taxpayers and practitioners.

The IRS first released much-anticipated proposed regulations for the new QBI deduction, REG-107892-18, on August 8, 2018. The proposed regulations were published in the Federal Register on August 16, 2018. The IRS released the final regulations and notice of additional proposed rulemaking on January 18, 2019, followed by a revised version of the final regulations on February 1, 2019. Additionally, Rev. Proc. 2019-11 was issued concurrently to provide further guidance on the definition of wages. Also, a proposed revenue procedure, Notice 2019-7, was issued concurrently to provide a safe harbor under which certain rental real estate enterprises may be treated as a trade or business for purposes of Section 199A.

Wolters Kluwer recently interviewed Tom West, a principal in the passthroughs group of the Washington National Tax practice of KPMG LLP, about the Section 199A QBI deduction regulations. Notably, West formerly served as tax legislative counsel at the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy. This article represents the views of the author only and does not necessarily represent the views or professional advice of KPMG LLP.

Wolters Kluwer: What is your general overview of the revised, final regulations for the Section 199A Qualified Business Income (QBI) or “pass-through” deduction?

Tom West: I think it is admirable that Treasury and IRS were able to publish these final regulations so quickly and address so many of the comments and questions that the proposed regulations generated. I think they realized how important this particular package was to so many taxpayers for the 2018 filing season and, while questions obviously remain, having these rules out in time to inform decisions for this year’s tax returns is helpful. In particular, the liberalized aggregation rules and the additional examples regarding certain specified service trades or businesses (SSTBs) are the most consequential in my mind.

Wolters Kluwer: What should taxpayers and practitioners keep in mind in consideration of relying on either the proposed or final regulations for the 2018 tax year?

Tom West: I have to imagine that when choosing between the two, for most taxpayers the final regulations will ultimately provide the better result. The ability to aggregate at the entity level, which was only provided in the final regulations, may be a key consideration for those taxpayers with more complicated or tiered structures. That said, I do think taxpayers need to be careful in their aggregation modeling because you are going to be stuck with your aggregation once you’ve filed. It may be that some taxpayers wait on getting locked into a particular aggregation and continue to study the new rules—and even wait on additional guidance that may be coming. However, it may be important to note that the final regulations provide that if an individual fails to aggregate, the individual may not aggregate trades or businesses on an amended return—other than for the 2018 tax year.

Wolters Kluwer: How is the removal of the proposed 80 percent rule regarding specified service trades or businesses (SSTBs) from the final regulations likely to impact certain taxpayers?

Tom West: First of all, I think the removal of this rule is a demonstration of two important dynamics. One, the critical importance of the engagement of taxpayers in the comment process, and, two, the government’s willingness to listen and adapt in their rule-making. I don’t know if there are particular industries or taxpayers who will be impacted, but I do know that the change is a very logical and appropriate one, and logic doesn’t always prevail in these processes, so I’m happy to give the regulators credit when it does.

Wolters Kluwer: Which industries may have been helped or hindered by the final regulations with respect to SSTB rules?

Tom West: I’m not sure specific industries were helped, but the biggest positive in terms of the SSTB final rules is the carryover from the proposed regulations of the treatment of the skill or reputation provision. Had Treasury and the IRS gone in a different direction, there was a risk of that provision swallowing the rest of the 199A regime—not to mention how much more subjective the already sometimes difficult SSTB determinations would have become.

Wolters Kluwer: Are there any lingering, unanswered questions among taxpayers or practitioners that particularly stand out when determining what constitutes SSTB income?

Tom West: I think many taxpayers who have both SSTB and non-SSTB activities were hoping for more clarity, either in rules or examples, on how to acceptably segregate business lines or on when (or if) certain activities are inextricably tied together. There are also still lingering questions regarding when a trade or business is an SSTB—particularly in the field of health.

Wolters Kluwer: Were there any surprises in the final regulations?

Tom West: I don’t know if I’m surprised, knowing the concerns that led them to the decisions they made, but the fact that Treasury and IRS held the line on some of the SSTB-related rules is notable. I’m thinking specifically of the so-called “cliff” effect of the de minimis rule and the fact that owners of certain kinds of SSTB businesses, e.g., sports teams, are not allowed to benefit from the Section 199A deduction.