Federal and state research credits (often referred to as the “research and development,” “R&D” or “research and experimentation” credit) are among the most valuable tax incentives available today. But many businesses overlook these tax breaks because they mistakenly believe that they don’t qualify or wouldn’t benefit. In recent years, federal legislation credit and explains which companies are eligible for it.

Federal and state research credits (often referred to as the “research and development,” “R&D” or “research and experimentation” credit) are among the most valuable tax incentives available today. But many businesses overlook these tax breaks because they mistakenly believe that they don’t qualify or wouldn’t benefit. In recent years, federal legislation has expanded the availability of credit for many businesses. So, your business hasn’t been claiming the R&D credit, it’s worth another look.

What’s it worth to you?

To claim the federal R&D credit, simply conducting research isn’t enough; it’s for “increasing research activities.” Generally, it’s equal to 20% of the amount by which qualified research expenditures (QREs) in a tax year exceed a base amount derived from your company’s historical R&D expenditures. There are alternative computation methods for start-ups and other companies without sufficient historical data.

Calculating the credit is complex, but qualifying companies can reduce their federal income tax liability by as much as 13.5 cents for every dollar they spend on QREs. This includes wages, supplies, and certain consulting and contract research feeds related to qualified research activities. The credit is nonrefundable — that is, it can’t be used to generate a loss — but unused credits may be carried back one year or forward up to 20 years. In addition, limits on general business credits prevent companies from using tax credits to erase their liability entirely. many states offer tax credits in addition to those available at the federal level, so be sure to consider those benefits.

Are you eligible?

The R&D credit isn’t just for scientific research. In brief, qualifying research must relate to the development or improvement of a business component with an uncertain probability of success, involve activities that are technological in nature, and use a process of experimentation. These criteria are broad enough to encompass a wide range of business activities, including developing new products, improving processes (including the business of financial processes that involve computer technology) or developing software for internal use.

What’s changed?

Two recent tax law changes expanded the availability of the R&D credit and enhanced its benefits: The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015 and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). The PATH Act, in addition to making the R&D credit permanent, made it available to start-up businesses that hadn’t been able to take advantage of the credit because they had an insufficient federal tax liability.

In general, businesses in operation for less than five years, with less than $5 million in gross receipts, may use R&D credits to reduce up to $250,000 in employer-paid payroll taxes.

The TCJA didn’t make any direct changes to the R&D credit, but several of its changes have a significant, indirect impact on the credit. For example, by eliminating the corporate alternative minimum tax (AMT) and increasing exemption amounts for individual AMT, the TCJA made the credit available to many businesses that otherwise wouldn’t be able to use it. That’s because the credit may not be offset against AMT (with an exception for certain smaller businesses). The TCJA removed this obstacle for businesses no longer exposed to AMT.

The TCJA also affected the R&D credit by reducing the corporate income tax rate from a top rate of 35% to a flat 21% rate. This enhances the value of the credit for pass-through businesses — such as partnerships, S corporations, and LLCs — that elect a reduced credit. To avoid a double tax benefit, the tax code prohibits businesses that claim R&D credits from also deducting those amounts as a business expense. But businesses have the option of preserving those deductions by electing to reduce their credits by the maximum corporate tax rate.

For most C corporations, the election is a wash — it has no impact on their federal tax liability. But it may allow them to reduce their state income tax liability. For pass-through owners, however, who are taxed at individual rates as high as 37%, the election may offer significant benefits. Why? Because, by making the election, an owner in the top tax bracket trades a 21% reduction in the credit for deductions that reduce his or her tax liability on the same amount by 37%. Note that another change made by the TCJA will reduce the benefits of R&D deductions starting in 2022.

Revisit the credit

If your business engages in research activities but hasn’t been claiming the R&D credit, now’s a good time to revisit it to see if recent changes affect your eligibility. You may have an opportunity to reduce your federal and state tax liability on future returns and even claim credits you missed during certain prior years by filing amended returns.

© 2019


Hugh G. Hermanek, CPA, CITP

Hugh listens to business owners and delivers strategies to enhance their operations. Creating efficiency using technology and improving management reporting tools are always a focus when he works with clients. Hugh has extensive knowledge recommending accounting software solutions and completing tailored implementations. His understanding of IT controls, years of experience completing SOC examinations and a long history of working with clients on tax planning, allows Hugh to provide comprehensive and balanced proposals to business owners. Hugh currently leads the consulting, data analytics and CAS initiatives for the firm to ready our staff for the fast-moving changes affecting the CPA profession.