Authored by Paul Dillon and Mike Schiavo
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. While modifying leases may be commonplace in the current economy, failing to factor in the tax considerations can lead to unintended consequences.
At inception, generally all leases must be tested under IRC section 467. This section was enacted in 1984 primarily as an anti-abuse provision to stop tax-shelter-type transactions that were intended to take advantage of income and deduction timing differences between accrual and cash basis taxpayers. When such situations arise, section 467 may apply to eliminate timing differences and put both the landlord and tenant on the same terms for recognizing income and deductions. Generally, most standard commercial leases will not be subject to any complex calculations at inception.
However, many lease modifications in the current economy may inadvertently run afoul of these rules and result in significant tax modifications. Anytime 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.
By way of a brief illustration: Assume a tenant has a 10-year lease in place for $100,000 per month. They ask to defer 24 months of rent, which will be payable in the final year of the lease. In total, $2.4 million has been deferred, $1.2 million for 2019 and $1.2 million for 2020. This modification causes the lease to have deferred rent under section 467 and may require the parties to recognize rental income and expense under the proportional rental accrual approach.
Assume the amount recognized as rent for 2019 under the proportional rental accrual method is $1 million. This means the landlord would recognize $1 million of gross rents in the current year and be deemed to make a loan back to the tenant in a like amount. Consequently, the tenant would receive a corresponding rental deduction. The $200,000 difference is treated as imputed interest that would be recognized by the parties over the term of the deemed loan.
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.
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.
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