What is 409(a) and Why Does My Company Need it?

Whether your company is a new startup or an established private company, understanding and proper use of a 409(a) is essential to your company’s success. Thinking about it early will help you avoid potential setbacks and challenges later on, giving you more time to focus on growing your company, rather than tackling penalties. If that doesn’t convince you that a 409(a) is something that your company needs, a better understanding of what it is will convince you. 


To start with the basics, what is a 409(a)? First added to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) in 2005, 409(a) outlines the taxation on “non-qualified deferred compensation,” which includes common stock options for employees. For companies to be able to offer their employees the ability to purchase stock in the company, they must complete a 409(a) valuation to determine the “strike price,” or the predetermined price at which employees can purchase the stocks. 


Undergoing a 409(a) valuation ensures that the strike price is at or above the fair market value and that the company remains compliant with the IRC. For companies who the IRS find to be noncompliant with the code, some penalties include an additional 20% tax penalty and penalty interest. 


So, how do you ensure that your company accurately determines the fair market value of your common stock? This can be done a couple of ways, either by someone within the company or by a third-party valuation firm. Whether you’re planning on completing 409(a) valuation in-house or hiring a firm, there are a few key things to keep in mind. 


For valuations done in-house, whoever is chosen must have at least five years of experience related to valuation. Since this can be subjective, the IRS could rule that the individual did not meet the requirements and that the valuation is inaccurate. Additionally, only private companies that are less than 10 years old can choose to complete their valuation in-house. It is also important to remember that if the IRS were to investigate, it would be the company’s responsibility to prove their valuation was correct. 


Hiring an outside firm, while often the more costly option, is usually more reliable. As long as the firm maintains a consistent approach to valuations and is independent, meaning that the firm is only providing the company with valuation, the company is given “safe harbor” protection. A safe harbor protects both the company and its employees, as it would be the IRS’s responsibility to prove that the valuation was inaccurate. 


Once your company has received its 409(a) valuation, how long does that last? It is considered to be valid for one year after the valuation. After that, it must be redone to ensure compliance. If your company closes a round of funding or undergoes any material changes before that period is up, a new 409(a) valuation would be required. 


Armed with the knowledge of what exactly a 409(a) is, you can help your company achieve success and maintain IRC compliance. Even early on, being compliant with tax codes ensures you avoid severe penalties and expensive delays should the IRS decide to audit your company as it begins generating revenue. 


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