Consider the tax implications if you’re awarded restricted stock

In recent years, restricted stock has become a popular form of incentive compensation for executives and other key employees. If you’re awarded restricted stock — stock that’s granted subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture — it’s important to understand the tax implications.

Income recognition is normally deferred until the stock is no longer subject to that risk or you sell it. You then pay taxes based on the stock’s fair market value (FMV) when the restriction lapses and at your ordinary-income rate.

But you can instead make a Section 83(b) election to recognize ordinary income when you receive the stock. This election, which you must make within 30 days after receiving the stock, can be beneficial if the income at the grant date is negligible or the stock is likely to appreciate significantly before income would otherwise be recognized. Why? Because the election allows you to convert future appreciation from ordinary income to long-term capital gains income and defer it until the stock is sold.

There are some disadvantages of a Sec. 83(b) election:

  1. You must prepay tax in the current year. But if a company is in the earlier stages of development, this may be a small liability.
  2. Any taxes you pay because of the election can’t be refunded if you eventually forfeit the stock or its value decreases. But you’d have a capital loss when you forfeited or sold the stock.

If you’re awarded restricted stock before the end of 2012 and it’s looking like your tax rate will go up in the future, the benefits of a Sec. 83(b) election may be more likely to outweigh the potential disadvantages.