S corporations have an obligation to police their shareholder base to see that all shareholders remain eligible. A common problem S corporations face is making sure that after the subchapter S election is made, it stays effective. When a bank is gearing up to make its S election, attorneys and accountants are typically reviewing shareholder documentation to confirm eligibility. But, after the S election is effective, most banks do not regularly review their shareholders’ list to confirm eligibility. Actions beyond the bankers’ control, such as the death or divorce of a shareholder, can result in an inadvertent termination of the S election. The tax consequences for the company and its shareholders can be disastrous.
Here is a common scenario. A bank has a shareholder who passes away. The executor, who is much more concerned with administering the estate than protecting the bank’s S election, either transfers the bank shares to an ineligible shareholder, such as a corporation, or does nothing and leaves the shares in the estate. While an estate is an eligible shareholder, an estate does terminate for tax purposes at some point, so as a general rule, shares cannot be held in an estate indefinitely. The executor fails to notify the bank that the shareholder has passed away for several years. Dividend checks continue to be cashed in the name of the deceased shareholder. All the while, the bank is not aware of what has happened
Then, sometimes years later, something raises the issue. For example, the executor may finally contact the bank to effect the transfer of the shares, or a new review of the bank’s shareholder list may raise questions about why an estate is still a shareholder. Only then does the bank realize that the shareholder’s will transferred the shares to a corporation or that the shares have been sitting in the estate for many years. As a result, the S election has been compromised.
The good news is that the IRS has a program in place for S corporations to request relief for inadvertent terminations. However, consent of 100 percent of the S corporation shareholders is required, along with a filing to the IRS and a substantial filing fee.
It can be time consuming to obtain the requested relief from the IRS, but going through the process is essential if there has been an inadvertent termination. However, through the suggestions below, bankers may be able to avoid the inadvertent termination in the first place, which is obviously preferable:
- Review shareholders’ list: The bank should conduct a detailed review of the list of shareholders at least annually to confirm all shareholders are eligible. In addition, every two years, the bank’s accountants or attorneys should conduct a detailed review of the list.
- Review the shareholders’ agreement: Most S corporations have a shareholders’ agreement in place to protect the S election. If the shareholders’ agreement was drafted several years ago, an attorney should review it to confirm that the agreement is up to date with current law. In addition, the agreement should contain protections in the event the S election is inadvertently terminated, such as shareholder indemnification of the expenses incurred in connection with obtaining relief for the inadvertent termination and a covenant by the shareholders to take all steps necessary to remedy the inadvertent termination. There are other provisions that are useful as well.
- Shareholder communication: On an annual basis, banks should send a certification to each shareholder to confirm the shareholder still qualifies as an eligible shareholder. This annual certification requirement can be built into the shareholders’ agreement or something that the bank just sends out on its own each year.
- Remind shareholders of estate planning issues: Either in conjunction with the annual certification or separately, remind shareholders about the consequences upon the shareholder’s death. For example, a shareholder should talk with the attorney who drafted his or her will to confirm that the shares pass to an eligible shareholder.
- Train the bank’s corporate secretary: The corporate secretary should be mindful of S corporation qualifications and eligibility issues as well as common issues that could impact the S election. The corporate secretary can possibly help avoid an inadvertent termination by being proactive and asking the right questions.
- Road map memos: Banks should consider requiring shareholders, for example, as part of the shareholders’ agreement, to have their estate planning attorneys provide the bankers with a letter or memorandum detailing what happens to the shares upon the death of a shareholder, especially if the shares are already held in a trust.
By taking the steps above, a potential inadvertent termination of a bank’s subchapter S election can be avoided. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.