Business Finance

Do Owner Wages Qualify For The Employee Retention Credit?

Jan 24, 2023 • 5 min read
Table of Contents

      The CARES Act included provisions for several financial relief programs to support businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them, the Employee Retention Credit (ERC), rewards those that continued paying wages despite experiencing decreased revenues or operational shutdowns.

      Initially, many taxpayers eligible for the ERC were uncertain whether wages paid to owners employed by their businesses qualified for the payroll tax credit. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued a notice that answers the question definitively, but it can be challenging to decipher.

      Here’s a more readily digestible explanation of the guidance to help you understand whether your owner wages qualify for the ERC.

      Do Owner Wages Qualify For the ERC?

      You probably won’t be able to include owner wages in your calculations when claiming the ERC. The IRS doesn’t expressly forbid it, but its interpretation of familial attribution and constructive ownership rules render most majority owners ineligible. The reasoning behind its position is circuitous, but doesn’t leave room for interpretation.

      Previously, the IRS confirmed in its ERC FAQs that wages paid to employees related to their employers aren’t eligible for the ERC. For the purposes of the credit, relatives are defined as the following:

      • A child or a descendant of a child
      • A brother, sister, stepbrother, or stepsister
      • The father or mother, or an ancestor of either
      • A stepfather or stepmother
      • A niece or nephew
      • An aunt or uncle
      • A son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law

      When the employer is a corporation, a related individual includes any person who has one of the relationships above with a majority owner. A majority owner is an individual who directly or indirectly owns at least 50% of the corporation’s stock.

      However, the FAQs make no reference to wages paid to owners or their spouses, which led to the previously referenced confusion among taxpayers. To clarify its stance, the IRS issued Notice 2021-49.

      Notice 2021-49 asserts that the constructive ownership rules for determining who is considered a majority owner of a corporation apply to the ERC. These rules state that an individual is considered to own, by extension, all stock their family members own. Family members include ancestors, siblings (whole or half), and lineal descendants.

      Here’s where things get a little confusing. The notice then alleges that applying these rules to the ERC means that wages paid to majority owners with living siblings, ancestors, or lineal descendants don’t qualify for the tax credit.

      Here’s the logic: If you’re a majority owner, your siblings, ancestors, and lineal descendants are also considered majority owners. Because they’re considered a majority owner, you’re related to a majority owner. As an employee related to a majority owner, your wages aren’t eligible for the ERC, per the original exclusion in the FAQs.

      Ultimately, you must have no living ancestors, siblings, or lineal descendants to claim the ERC for your wages as a majority owner. Alternatively, you can be a minority owner with less than 50% ownership in your corporation after taking the family attribution and constructive ownership rules into account.

      Note: Since only corporations can pay wages to their owners, they’re the only employers relevant to this discussion. If your business operates under any other legal entity structure, then owner compensation is automatically disqualified from the ERC.

      Examples of Owner Wages and the ERC

      The rules regarding owner wages and their eligibility for the ERC can be frustratingly abstract. Let’s discuss some examples to help you understand whether you can claim the ERC for your owner wages.

      Owner Wages Ineligible

      Corporation A is an employer that can claim the ERC for qualified wages paid in 2020. During that period, it paid wages to John, who owns 60% of Corporation A’s stock. John has a wife named Susan and a daughter named Mary, both of whom also work for the company.

      Because Mary is related to John, a majority owner, her wages don’t qualify for the ERC. In addition, as his family member, she’s also considered a majority owner. Because John is related to Mary, a majority owner, neither his nor his wife’s wages qualify for the ERC.

      Owner Wages Eligible

      Corporation B is an employer that can claim the ERC for qualified wages paid in 2021. During that period, it paid wages to Lisa, who owns 100% of Corporation B’s stock. Lisa has no living ancestors, siblings, or lineal descendants. Her husband, Chris, also works for Corporation B.

      Lisa is a majority owner, but she has no relatives who meet the requirements to share her status by extension. As a result, qualified wages paid to her and her husband are eligible for the ERC if the amounts satisfy the other requirements to be treated as qualified wages..

      Apply For the ERC

      The ERC can be incredibly lucrative, with the potential to reduce your payroll tax liability by $26,000 for each employee retained through 2020 and 2021. The window to earn the credit is closed, but eligible businesses can still claim the credit retroactively. Even if your wages don’t qualify due to the owner exclusion, you may still be eligible for a credit if you had employees on the payroll during the pandemic.

      About the author
      Nick Gallo, CPA

      Nick Gallo is a Certified Public Accountant and content marketer for the financial industry. He has been an auditor of international companies and a tax strategist for real estate investors. He now writes articles on personal and corporate finance, accounting and tax matters, and entrepreneurship.

      Share Article:

      Business insights right to your inbox

      Subscribe to our weekly newsletter for industry news and business strategies and tips

      Subscribe to the newsletter

      Subscribe to our weekly newsletter for industry news and business strategies and tips.