Sorting through complicated compensation plans

Managing earnings tax efficiently may be just as important as the compensation package itself.

You’ve worked hard to rise through the ranks. As a corporate executive, you know all too well the demands on your time, the importance of decisions you have to make, and the stewardship required to keep your company thriving. It’s a demanding job. And managing the significant wealth that accompanies it takes skill, attention to detail and a lot of planning.

Executive compensation packages usually consist of short-term and long-term incentives that come in a variety of forms, above base salaries. They might include annual bonuses and stock options--both of which come in many forms. It might feel like a lot to wade through, especially when you start thinking about the next chapter for you, whether that’s preparing for retirement or a new phase in your career.

How should you draw upon your income options in the most tax-efficient way? Do you need to consider how your investments in company stock will affect you years down the line? These are questions best to ponder while you can adjust how you’re managing your bonuses, stock grants and stock options.

Here are some tips for sorting through these complex compensation plans.

Ask for an accounting of your total benefits and compensation. It’s becoming more common for companies with generous perks to share total compensation package figures with employees. As an executive, you’ll want to know the rules around exercising stock options, vesting schedules and policies about how to draw deferred compensation. Understanding these policies will help you avoid equity concentration down the line as well.

Tip: Pay close attention to the vesting rules. Your window to exercise vested stock options may accelerate upon retirement, and unvested restricted stock and performance shares may be forfeited when you are no longer an employee. If you have unvested awards, consider including them when negotiating your retirement package.

Consider if you can delay lump-sum payments until you’re no longer drawing a salary. When you retire, you’ll likely be at your maximum earnings, and adding lump-sum payments from your nonqualified deferred compensation plan and accumulated stock awards could significantly boost your adjusted gross income as well as your tax obligations. You may be given the choice to take a lump-sum payout in the near term or push payments out five to 10 years, essentially creating a predictable income stream. Your decision is irrevocable, so think through the implications carefully with your accountant and professional advisors.

Work with your advisor to determine your cash-flow needs in the near future. If you’re going to be exiting the organization, whether it’s to retire or do something else, you may be relying on cashing in stock to bolster your income. In your calculations, be sure to include your tax liability when exercising stock options. If you’re planning to retire, think about what you’ll need to fund health coverage or other insurance as well.

Concentrate on equity concentration. Executive compensation often includes substantial equity in your company’s stock. And you may be attached to it. After all, you helped build the company and are proud of what you’ve accomplished. It could be hard to imagine a time when the stock may falter. But there’s no sure thing in investing, so it makes sense to diversify your holdings to limit overexposure to just one investment.

Work with your accountant to sell your stock over time so you don’t trigger unnecessary tax consequences, violate any insider trading regulations, or infringe on any holding rules established by your company. Then work with your advisor to invest the proceeds in a more diverse range of securities. Putting strategies in place for diversifying is best done sooner rather than later, before the situation becomes an issue.

Tip: The Securities and Exchange Commission’s Rule 10b5-1 allows you to strategically sell an established number of shares at regular intervals to avoid perceptions of insider trading.

Delay Social Security. If you’re retiring in the near future, consider delaying Social Security as long as possible so that the payments don’t coincide with years when you have to take large, deferred compensation payments. Avoid unnecessarily increasing your marginal tax bracket and, therefore, your overall tax burden if you can.

Take into account proposed tax code. Every year there is the potential for tax changes that affect executive compensation. You may need to make changes to your income or investment strategy to reduce potential tax burdens. It’s worth revisiting every year and pulling in your advisor and accountant to recalibrate if necessary.

Keep in mind that these are general guidelines. Depending on your unique situation and the plans you’re making for the future, there may be specific actions you could take to minimize your tax consequences. Consult with your accountant and advisor to determine what will work best for you and your family.

Next steps

If your executive compensation package is getting complex:

  • Bring together your accountant, financial advisor and attorney for a meeting to discuss your vision for the future
  • Keep an eye on tax code changes that may affect your tax responsibility year to year
  • Enjoy the wealth you’ve worked so hard to earn; be sure to write that into your plans

Sources: The Wall Street Journal; Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation

Raymond James and its advisors do not offer tax advice. You should discuss any tax matters with the appropriate professional.

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