Rea & Associates: How your business can get tax benefits from research activities

Your company doesn’t need to have laboratories filled with beakers to be eligible for tax credits provided for research and development (R&D) activities.

“Many people don’t think they’re doing the type of research that qualifies. But in this context, research is a tax definition. And while there may be similarities to the laboratory sense of the word, it covers a wider range of activities,” says Christopher E. Axene, CPA, a principal in tax services at Rea & Associates, Inc.

Smart Business spoke to Axene about activities that qualify for credits and the application process.

What is the credit?

It’s an income tax credit available to U.S. companies for R&D activities within the U.S. While companies conducting research are already deducting those expenses, the credit is better because it’s a dollar-for-dollar reduction in their tax liability.

The credit has been around since the early 1980s, but has expired many times and continues to be extended by Congress every year. It’s set to expire again at the end of 2013 unless Congress takes action.

There are three main categories of credits:

  • Labor or the wages of people involved in R&D activities.
  • Supplies expended as part of the process.
  • Costs relating to hiring an outside company to assist with research, provided that the company paying for the services is at risk regarding the success or failure of the work.

For most companies, only the first two categories would apply.

There are two types of credits, a regular credit and a simplified credit. The regular credit is often referred to as a 20 percent credit, which is something of a misnomer because there’s an adjustment to prevent double dipping. Since companies are already deducting the expenses on their tax returns, the net credit given is 13 percent. Few companies claim this credit because of the detail required with the filing. The simplified credit is more common and is 4.5 percent of every R&D dollar spent.

Is the credit just for manufacturers?

No, it has wide potential applicability because it’s not limited to a particular industry. It’s truly about whether a business is performing qualified research. Lean manufacturing and Six Sigma certainly qualify, but so do other activities. For example, a software company that averages $10 million in annual revenues routinely gets $80,000 a year in credits because it continually upgrades and enhances its products.

There’s a four-part eligibility test for the credit:

  • There must be some uncertainty that the activity is undertaken to eliminate. If you know the result before you start a process, it wouldn’t qualify.
  • It must be for a permitted purpose, such as to develop or improve a product or process.
  • There has to be a process of experimentation. Failure is a good thing — it shows a process.
  • It must be technological in nature, which means it relies on a hard science. It’s physical, biological or computer engineering rather than one of the social sciences.

Why don’t more companies apply for the credit?

Many aren’t aware of the credit because advisers haven’t informed them or they don’t use advisers. Others don’t think they do R&D because they don’t have employees wearing lab coats.

There also are owners of pass-through entities who don’t bother applying because the tax credit is not available to individuals who are subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT). If it were allowed as a credit against AMT, the percentage of people taking the credit would skyrocket.

Keep an open mind, have a conversation and determine whether the benefit is worth the time and effort to file the necessary paperwork. Also explore the state-level R&D incentives that can apply regardless of whether or not the federal credit is claimed.

Christopher E. Axene, CPA, is a principal in Tax Services at Rea & Associates, Inc. Reach him at (614) 889-8725 or [email protected].

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