It comes as no surprise that the unprecedented economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is prompting many commercial tenants to seek rent relief. Cash-strapped businesses may be negotiating with their landlords for all kinds of concessions, in the hopes of surviving the coming weeks and months until economic activity picks up again. For financial reporting purposes, recent guidance from the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) allows the parties to elect to treat rent concessions as if no changes to the lease contract were made, depending on facts and circumstances. In greatly simplified terms, this means the landlord and tenant would continue to recognize income and expense on a straight-line basis.
For tax purposes, though, it is a different story. Generally, all leases must be tested under IRC section 467, but most standard commercial leases will not be subject to any complex calculations at inception. However, if there is a substantial modification to a lease, it must be retested under section 467, and that is when things could get tricky. The section 467 rules control the timing of rental income and expense for tax purposes in certain situations where there is significant deferred or prepaid rent and/or stepped rents. Depending on the magnitude of the changes, section 467 may require the landlord and tenant to use the accrual method to recognize rental income and expense regardless of their regular accounting method. Further, if the renegotiated lease has significant deferred (or prepaid) rent within the meaning of section 467, the regulations could deem that a loan exists between the parties, forcing them to recognize interest income and expense as well. In other words, the tax results may be much different than the business deal due to these complicated rules.
The regulations state that a lease modification is “substantial” if the legal rights and obligations that are altered and the degree to which they are altered is “economically substantial” based on all the facts and circumstances. There are some safe harbors for changes in lease terms due to lessor refinancing, CPI adjustments, expense pass-throughs and de minimis adjustments to fixed rent. But given the severity of the current economic situation, rent holidays, deferrals and/or restructured payment schedules may be significant enough to cross the substantial modification threshold. If this is the case, the modified lease is treated as a new lease as of the effective date of the changes and must be analyzed under section 467.
A section 467 rental agreement is an agreement for the use of tangible property, that has total payments greater than $250,000, and that has prepaid rent, deferred rent, and/or increasing or decreasing rent (“stepped rent”). Certain “disqualified” sale-leasebacks and long-term leases may also fall under section 467 if there is a tax avoidance motive behind the transaction.
A few key concepts are likely to be relevant in the current round of commercial lease renegotiations. A lease “specifically allocates” fixed rent if it unambiguously specifies, for periods no longer than a year, the fixed amount of rent for which the lessee becomes liable, and the total amount of fixed rent specified equals the total amount of fixed rent payable under the lease for the same period. There is an important nuance here. If a disconnect exists between how rent is allocated under the lease and when it is due and payable, that could cause section 467 issues, including deferred rent.
“Deferred rent” is a technical term of art in the section 467 world: If the cumulative rent allocated by the lease at the end of a calendar year is greater than the cumulative rent payable at the end of the following year, a lease has section 467 deferred rent. Unless the lease has adequate stated interest (110% of the applicable federal rate), rental income and expense, and interest income and expense must be recognized using present value calculations. This likely will come as an unpleasant surprise to landlord and tenant.
The section 467 rules are complex, full of defined terms and may be unfamiliar to many landlords and tenants. Whenever you renegotiate lease terms, no matter how small the changes, it is important to consult your Baker Tilly advisor to make sure you do not trigger unintended tax consequences.
View more insights from our guide to tax planning during and after COVID-19
The information provided here is of a general nature and is not intended to address the specific circumstances of any individual or entity. In specific circumstances, the services of a professional should be sought. Tax information, if any, contained in this communication was not intended or written to be used by any person for the purpose of avoiding penalties, nor should such information be construed as an opinion upon which any person may rely. The intended recipients of this communication and any attachments are not subject to any limitation on the disclosure of the tax treatment or tax structure of any transaction or matter that is the subject of this communication and any attachments.