Does Your Business Qualify for the Research Tax Credit?

Please note that this blog is based on laws effective on June 22, 2020 and may not contain later amendments. Please contact Cray Kaiser for most recent information.

When businesses hear about the research tax credit, they typically imagine that it’s for scientists in white lab coats. But that is not the case! The credit is actually much broader and more valuable than you might think.

The tax credit of up to 20% of qualified expenditures encourages businesses to develop, design or improve products, processes, techniques, formulas or software and similar activities. In the past, this credit—called the Credit for Increasing Research Activities—had to be reauthorized by Congress annually, but as part of the 2015 PATH Act, this credit was made permanent.

Calculated on the basis of increases in research activities and expenditures, the purpose of the research tax credit is to reward businesses that pursue innovation by continually increasing investment in research activities. Even so, an alternative simplified method allows taxpayers to claim research credits if research costs remain the same or even decline compared with prior years.

Computation Methods

There are two methods used to compute the credit: the regular method that provides for a 20% research credit or the simplified method which is easier to document but results in a reduced credit of 14% of eligible expenses.

Regular Method – Under the regular research credit method, the credit equals 20% of qualified research expenditures for a tax year over a base amount established by the business entity in 1984–1988, or a later period for companies that started subsequent to that period of time. This method may be the best choice for companies that can document a low base amount.

Simplified Method – Under the alternative simplified method, the credit equals 14% of qualified research expenses over 50% of the average annual qualified research expenses in the three preceding tax years. If the taxpayer has no qualified research expenses in any of the three preceding tax years, the alternative simplified method credit may be 6% of the tax year’s qualified research expenses. This method may be the best choice for taxpayers with incomplete records from the mid-1980s, those complicated by mergers and acquisitions, taxpayers with a high base amount from that period or smaller business entities.  

Qualified Research

The term “qualified research” means research undertaken for the purpose of discovering information that is technological in nature, the application of which is intended to be useful in the development of a new or improved business component of the taxpayer, and relates to:

However, certain purposes that are not qualified include style, taste, cosmetic or seasonal design factors. The definition is relatively broad and encompasses such activities as:

The Credit

The research tax credit is considered part of a taxpayer’s general business credit. A general business credit may typically be carried back one year by filing a refund claim for that earlier year, and if not used in that prior year, it is carried forward for a maximum of 20 years. This credit will not normally offset the alternative minimum tax. However, eligible small businesses with $50 million or less in gross receipts may claim the credit against their alternative minimum tax liability.

No Double Dipping

The business expense that created the credit must be reduced by the amount of the credit.

Payroll Tax Election

In the case of a qualified small business (one with gross receipts of less than $5 million) the business may elect to claim a portion of its research credit, not to exceed $250,000, against the employer’s share of the employees’ FICA withholding requirement (the 6.2% payroll tax). To be eligible for the payroll tax credit, the business may not have had gross receipts in any tax year preceding the five-tax-year period that ends with the tax year of the election.

If you would like to further discuss the research tax credit and how it might benefit your business, please contact Cray Kaiser today.

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