Exception to Code 83 Guidelines to the Non-Transferability Rule

The Code 83 regulations contain an important exception to the non-transferability rule that arises mostly with stock option grants, despite the fact that restricted stock grants are the type most often impacted by Code Section 83.

The exception to the regulations relates to profits realized under “short-swing” transactions. Under Section 16(b) of the Securities Act of 1934, any profit realized by an insider on a “short-swing” transaction must be disgorged by the company or a stockholder acting on the company’s behalf. “Short-swing” transactions are the non-exempt purchases and sales (or sales and purchases) of companies’ equity securities within a period of less than six months. In the event that a company grants a stock option that is not made under the applicable Section 16(b) exemption, it is deemed a non-exempt purchase.” Generally, the shares underlying the option are subject to the Section’s restrictions for six months after the date of the grant. Any sale of these shares within the six-month period following the grant date could be matched with the “purchase” and violate the Section.

With fairness in mind, it seems to follow that if a sale of shares would subject someone to potential SEC penalties, taxation on those shares would be delayed until the risk of liability lapses. Section 83 of the Code has always recognized this point. The Code Section 83 also recognizes that if a seller is restricted from selling shares of stock previously acquired in a non-exempt transaction within the past six months because of potential liability under Section 16(b), the shares are deemed to be subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture. This risk of forfeiture does not lapse, and as a result, the grantee will not realize taxable income until six months after which the acquisition of the shares by the grantee took place.

A question remained, however, regarding whether a subsequent non-exempt purchase could further extend the substantial risk of forfeiture. The final regulations answers this question, explaining with a new example that the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury to not respect this type of strategy. The new example clearly notes that any options granted in a non-exempt manner will only be considered subject to substantial risk of forfeiture for the first six months after the date of the grant of the shares.

This new example means that the risk of disgorging any profits under Section 16(b) generally will not have any impact on the substantial risk of forfeiture analysis.

With this new example, the IRS is essentially eliminating any opportunity to abuse the Section 16(b). The IRS is reminding grantees that transfer restrictions alone cannot delay taxation. As a result, employers should be careful to ensure that their grants contain a valid substantial risk of forfeiture to allow the grantees the ability to defer taxable income.

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