Startup Founders Don’t Need To Make A Section 83(b) Election

A bunch of websites, including websites of large law firms, advise startup founders to make an election under section 83(b) of the Internal Revenue Code. They shouldn’t have relied on ChatGPT! For almost all startups and almost all founders, a section 83(b) election is unnecessary and foolish.

Section 83 is captioned “Property Transferred in Connection with Performance of Services.” Section 83(a) states the general rule:  if you receive any kind of property in exchange for performing services you have to pay tax on the value of the property. The property could be anything, an old car, a 17th Century Chippendale cabinet, Bitcoin, but in the world of startups the property is usually company stock.

Under section 83(a), if you’re hired as the CTO of Startup, Inc. and receive 10,000 shares of Startup, Inc.’s stock as as part of your compensation package, worth $1.00 per share, Box 1 of your W-2 will include that $10,000 of value, along with your very modest cash salary.

When startups hire CTOs and other service providers, they structure the compensation package so the CTO will stick around. Typically, Startup, Inc. would give you the 10,000 shares today but provide that they “vest” in four tranches, 2,500 today, 2,500 at the end of the first year, 2,500 at the end of the second year, and 2,500 at the end of the third year. If you leave at the end of the second year you own 7,500 shares while the other 2,500 shares disappear.

Section 83(a) says you don’t pay tax on the shares until they vest. So you’d pay tax on the first 2,500 shares this year, then pay tax on the second 2,500 shares next year, and so forth. That’s great! You don’t have to pay tax on the property you receive until it’s vested or, in tax code parlance, until it is no longer “subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture.” 

That’s very fair but in the startup world there’s a downside. You think the shares of Startup, Inc. are worth $1.00 today but you hope they’ll be worth way more in the future – that’s the whole point of the startup. And while section 83(a) allows you to postpone paying tax until your shares vest, the flip side is you pay tax on the value at the time they vest. If the shares are worth $1.00 today you pay tax on $2,500 this year. But if they’re worth $1.65 next year you pay tax on $4,125. And if they’re worth $3.30 the year after you pay tax on $8,250, up and up.

That’s where section 83(b) comes in.  By filing a piece of paper with the IRS – the section 83(b) election – you can choose to pay tax on all the shares today, even on the shares that aren’t yet vested, at their current value, rather than paying tax on the value in the future.

You’re making a bet. If you’re confident the company will succeed, you choose to pay tax on $10,000 today even though you don’t really own all the shares and only have to pay tax on $2,500, hoping to save a lot of tax in the future. If the company fails you lose your bet:  you’ve paid tax on $10,000 of shares that weren’t really worth anything. 

As you might have noticed already, the whole scenario has nothing to do with founders, for two obvious reasons:

  • Leah, the founder of Startup, Inc. didn’t receive her stock by promising to perform services in the future. She received her stock because she formed the company. She transferred to the company the idea for the business, her marketing plans, a little cash, a contract with her first customer, maybe some computer code or other property. In tax parlance she contributed the goodwill.
  • Leah didn’t make her own stock “subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture”! She formed the company and issued all the stock to herself. Period.

For those of you keeping track, the issuance of stock to Leah by her company was tax-free under section 351 of the Code because she owns more than 80%.

The situation I just described is true of about 99.8% of startups. In the other .02% of cases, perhaps a founder teams up with an investor before forming her company and agrees that some of her stock is subject to a vesting schedule. In those cases, and only in those cases, would section 83(b) be relevant.

If your main challenge as a founder is you don’t have enough stuff to file with the IRS, go ahead and file a section 83(b) election even though it’s unnecessary and meaningless. Otherwise spend your time on something else.

Be careful what you read on the internet!

Questions? Let me know