So, you filed and paid all your taxes on the money you earned in 2021. Now, the company you work for finds itself in trouble, and you are forced to pay back part of your compensation. The big question is, will the IRS refund you for the taxes you already paid related to this compensation? While this seems like a bizarre scenario at first glance, it is more common than you might think.
Reducing or holding back compensation that hasn’t been earned yet is easy. Simply pay an executive or employee less, or don’t grant the stock option or bonus. Just don’t pay it.
Things get tricky in a situation where compensation has already been paid and needs to be reversed. This is much, much tougher. If you are still within the same calendar year, then logistically, it’s easier to make an adjustment; but unwinding compensation already awarded is never simple or easy.
Requiring an employee to pay back compensation is not as uncommon as many think. The situation can be as simple as receiving a signing bonus with the stipulation to stay at least a year. IRS treatment of repaid compensation depends on the details.
Details on Compensation Clawbacks
The answer to the core question can vary, with the legal context and timing being the biggest drivers. For example, both Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Protection Act grant regulatory authority to mandate clawbacks, even in cases where the taxpayer was unaware of any wrongdoing. The Sarbanes-Oxlet Act has its own set of clawback regulations. In cases such as this, there is the possibility, due to legal concerns, that a refund is not due to the taxpayer.
Generally, in cases of contractual issues, the IRS doesn’t allow a taxpayer to undo an economic event as if it never happened. The general exception to this rule is if you receive and give back the same compensation within the same calendar year. The problem, however, is that clawbacks usually come in later years after a tax return has been filed.
If you are still employed at the same company, they could simply agree to reduce your current year salary. If you are a former employee, things get tricker. You also have the possibility of amending a prior tax return in some cases. Unfortunately, many people find themselves in a situation where they need to claim a tax refund under Section 1341 of the tax code.
Section 1341 is based on the claim of right doctrine and attempts to put a taxpayer in the same position he or she would have been in had they never received the income. To qualify for and file under this provision, the taxpayer must have included money in income in the prior year because they had an unrestricted right to it at that time and then later learned they did not have an unrestricted right to it after all, therefore having to give it back.
The rules and regulations around the taxability of compensation required to be repaid is not simple. While the core issue of whether one is voluntary or mandatory, givebacks almost always create tax problems. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to return a material amount of compensation, no matter what the source, it’s best to reach out to your trusted tax adviser for help navigating the complexities.