Plan carefully when dealing with ISOs

ISOs give employees a “piece of the action” while allowing employers to attract workers at relatively inexpensive costs. However, before you accept that job offer, there are some intricate rules regarding the taxation of ISOs that you should understand.

How are ISOs taxed?

An incentive stock option is an option granted to you as an employee which gives you the right to purchase the stock of your employer without realizing income either when the option is granted or when it is exercised. You are first taxed when you sell or otherwise dispose of the option stock. You then have capital gain equal to the sale proceeds minus the option price, provided that the holding period requirement is met.

Note. The IRS has temporarily suspended collection of ISO alternative minimum tax (AMT) liabilities through September 30, 2008.

How long do I need to hold ISOs to get capital gain treatment?

To obtain favorable tax treatment, the stock acquired under an incentive stock option qualifies for favorable long-term capital gain tax treatment only if it is not disposed of before the later of two years from the date of the grant of the option, or one year from the date of the exercise of the option. If this holding period is not satisfied, the portion of the gain equal to the difference between the fair market value (FMV) of the stock at the time of exercise and the option price is taxed as compensation income rather than capital gain. In this case, you may be subject to the higher rate of income imposed on ordinary income.

For example, your employer granted you an incentive stock option on April 1, 2006, and you exercised the option on October 1, 2006, you must not sell the stock until April 1, 2008, to obtain favorable tax treatment (the later of two years from the date of the grant or one year from the date of exercise).

What key dates should I remember?

Because of the importance of receiving capital gain treatment, it is important that you keep in mind key dates such as the date of grant of the ISO and its date of exercise. These periods are measured from the date on which all acts necessary to grant the option or exercise the option have been completed. Therefore, the date of grant is treated as the date on which the board of directors or the stock option committee completes the corporate action which constitutes an offer of stock, rather than the date on which the option agreement is prepared. The date of exercise is the date on which the corporation receives notice of the exercise of the option and payment for the stock, rather than the date the shares of stock are actually transferred.

Will I be subject to alternative minimum tax?

The effect of the alternative minimum tax (AMT) on ISOs can amount to a potential trap for the unwary. This is because under the regular tax there is no tax until the stock is sold or otherwise disposed of. Under the AMT, however, the trap takes place when the ISO is exercised, since alternative minimum taxable income includes the difference between the FMV of the stock on the date the ISO is exercised and the price paid for the stock (the “ISO spread”).

If you pay AMT, you are given a credit against regular income tax for the portion of the AMT attributable to ISOs and other tax preference items that result in deferral of income tax. The credit is taken in later years when no AMT is due, and may be taken to the extent that regular tax liability exceeds tentative minimum tax liability. The effect of this is that the AMT is a prepayment of tax, rather than an additional tax.

Since the AMT only applies if it is higher than your regular income tax, one strategy is to time the exercise of ISOs each year to come under the AMT exemption levels. Purely from a tax standpoint, the ideal situation is to exercise ISOs each year that would result in AMT equal to your regular tax. Of course, other factors, such as market conditions, financial needs, etc. may play a greater role in deciding when to exercise an option. If you pay high property tax or state income tax, you may find it more challenging to calculate the optimum exercise of ISOs in relation to the AMT, since both of these deductions are counted against their annual AMT exemption.

ISOs can be a nice additional employee benefit when considering a job offer. However, because the tax implications surrounding certain key trigger events related to ISOs can have a significant impact on your tax liability, we suggest that you contact the office for additional guidance.