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The Cannabis Industry and Tax Implications of Entity Structure: Issues to Consider

By Calvin Shannon
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This piece is intended to provide some considerations that current and potential license holders should think about as they work with advisors to make entity selection decisions or consider potential tax elections. Please note that this article is a high-level overview and is not intended to declare the best type of entity structure for a license holding entity. Although there are numerous tax variables that should be contemplated, tax issues are not the only concerns relevant to determining entity type. In addition, some states may tax entities differently than how the entity is taxed for federal purposes.

First, let’s look at the legal entity types that may be set up to hold a license, operate a business and what that may mean for how an entity is taxed. Often, entities are set up as either limited liability companies or corporations.

If a limited liability company is organized and the entity is owned by only one owner, a single member LLC, the default tax treatment would be that the entity is disregarded for tax purposes. In other words, it would not file a separate federal income tax return, except in some states including CA, TX, TN and RI. All the tax consequences of the activities within the legal entity are reported on the tax return of the owner of the entity.

If a limited liability company is set up and the entity is owned by more than one owner, a multiple member LLC, the default tax treatment would be that the entity is taxed as a partnership. An entity taxed as a partnership reflects the tax consequences of the activities within the legal entity on a partnership return. The partnership generally does not pay tax on the activity, but rather the taxable income and loss are passed through to the owners of the LLC. The owners of the LLC reflect the taxable income or loss on their tax return and are responsible for paying any resulting tax. In the rare instance of an entity being audited, there is a possibility that the entity may have to pay tax on the partners behalf, depending on the ownership structure. Either a single member LLC or a multiple member LLC may elect to treat the LLC as a C-corporation or an S-corporation for tax purposes.

The Taxation of C-Corporations & S-Corporations

The default treatment for an entity set-up as a corporation is the entity will be taxed as a C-corporation. An entity taxed as a C-corporation, including an LLC electing to be taxed as a C-corporation, pays the tax on any taxable income generated by activities within the entity.  Additionally, any distributions of earnings from the C-corporation to the owners of the entity are generally considered dividends which are required to be reported as taxable income by the owners when received. In other words, the earnings of an entity taxed as a C-corporation are potentially taxed twice. Once, as they are earned within the entity, and then again upon distribution to the owners of the entity.

An entity set-up as a corporation, a single member LLC or a multiple member LLC may elect to be treated as an S-corporation. Like an entity taxed as a partnership, an S-corporation does not pay tax at the entity level, but rather passes the taxable income and loss through to the owner or owners. Additionally, like a partnership, distributions from an S-corporation are not taxable as dividends to the owner when received.

Since we covered how different entities are taxed based on how they are set-up, and what elections they may or may not make, we will explore some of the issues that should be considered when making an entity selection. We will also address potentially electing to treat an entity one way or another for tax purposes. 

S-Corporations 

Advantages: The advantages of an S-corporation are limited to the avoidance of double taxation associated with C-corporations, as well as some potential benefits of lower Social Security and Medicare taxes.

Disadvantages: The primary disadvantage of an S-corporation for a license holding company is any non-deductible expenses resulting from 280E are passed through to the owner(s), which then reduces the ownership’s tax basis in its investment in the entity. A reduction in tax basis is determinantal to owners of an entity because the basis is used to reduce taxable income when/if the owner liquidates ownership in the entity.

Other disadvantages of S-corporations include but are not limited to restrictions on ownership of the entity, a requirement for reasonable compensation paid to owners and a lack of flexibility in the allocations of earnings among owners.

Partnerships

Advantages: The advantages of a partnership include but are not limited to the avoidance of double taxation associated with C-corporations, flexibility in the allocation of earnings and losses among owners, and flexibility in the type of owners of the entity.

Disadvantages: Like S-corporations, the primary disadvantage of a partnership is any non-deductible expenses resulting from 280E are passed through to the owner(s).

Other disadvantages of partnerships include potential self-employment taxes on earnings allocated to active owners, potential complexity in the allocations of taxable income and losses among partners in entities with many owners or different classes of ownership.

C-Corporations

Advantages: In contrast to S-corporations and partnerships, the tax basis resulting from the ownership’s investment in the entity is not subject to reductions from non-deductible expenses being passed through to owners. This protection of tax basis is particularly important to owners of license holding entities.

An additional advantage of C-corporation tax treatment may be a lower tax rate applied to taxable income.

Disadvantages: The most significant disadvantage of C-corporation tax treatment is the potential double taxation of earnings that might be applicable if the entity does have earnings that are distributed.

In addition to the items address above, the advantages and disadvantages of the entity type and related tax elections, additional considerations include:

  1. How much of the 280E nondeductible expenses will the taxpayer be subject to?
  2. How much earnings will the entity be distributing to the owners?
  3. How complex is the entity’s ownership?
  4. The lack of certainty regarding whether or not the qualified business income deduction (QBID) enjoyed by pass-through entity owners is allowable as a deduction by owners receiving pass-through income from an entity subject to 280E.
  5. Are there plans for selling the entity and if so, what is the time horizon for doing so?

At Bridge West, we advise taxpayers to consult with cannabis advisors who have experience in the industry, can help navigate the complexities of tax compliance and Code Section 280E and are experienced with entity structures.

Solutions & Alternatives to Bankruptcy for Cannabis Businesses

By Richard Ormond
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A Cannabis Related Business (or CRB), whether a plant-touching operation or a provider of goods and services to plant-touching operations cannot seek protection from the bankruptcy court as it is a federal court and cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. As such, a CRB does not have the benefit of a court approved restructuring as provided by Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code and does not receive the benefit of an orderly liquidation as provided by Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. However, alternatives to bankruptcy do exist and are available to a CRB.

Historical Considerations

Before the emergence of the Bankruptcy Code, businesses and their creditors had very few options available to undertake a court-supervised restructuring or liquidation other than seeking the appointment of a court neutral, typically called a receiver or special master. That “neutral” would take the business or its assets into “legal custody” or custodia legis and begin the process of dissolving the entities, selling the assets or otherwise sell the business as a going-concern. In the 1880s and 1890s with the Gilded Age coming to an abrupt halt, this process was successfully used to restructure and recapitalize the failing network of over-extended railways and rail lines, leading to the consolidation in the market that remains to this day.

Cannabis businesses can be legal and now an “essential” business but, still cannot receive the benefits of bankruptcy court.During the Great Depression, the federal judiciary established “reference” courts to deal specifically with bankrupt businesses and individuals laying the foundations for the modern bankruptcy code which is still in effect today. Many of those first precedents used to establish the bankruptcy code and rules were drawn directly from the receivership case law and receivership statutes ever-present in the historical record of common law cases and common law countries, reaching all the way back to the Courts of Chancery in Britain established soon after the Norman invasion of the British Isles in 1066.

In the United States, the equitable power of courts to initiate receiverships or other insolvency proceedings and crafting orders and decrees based on equity, as opposed as based on law or statute, is codified clearly in Article III of the United States Constitution. Today, receiverships and special masters are still utilized by state and federal courts to remedy unique circumstances where a simple bankruptcy cannot address the inequities presented in that case.

State Court Powers & Financing of Receivership Estates

State courts in particular, and California especially, have a wide body of case law supporting the equitable powers of the court, the quasi-judicial immunity of the receiver and the many equitable tools available to receivers. These powers include the negotiation and transfer of liens, with liens attaching to proceeds of sales of assets, the dissolution of a business and the establishment of a claims process akin to a bankruptcy or assignment for benefit of creditors.

One of the many overlooked powers of a receiver is their ability to bring in outside financing or capital to fund the receivership estate to maintain a business as an ongoing concern or to provide short term leverage so that assets can be properly maintained, “dusted off” and sold.

This process of bringing in new capital is typically done by the issuance of receivership certificates. These certificates are approved, ahead of time, by the court and courts can authorize that such certificates prime all other claims (including sometimes administrative claims) and that these certificates can be reduced to a security interest recorded against real or personal property.

The Mechanics of a Receivership

However, because cannabis is approved at the state level, state courts retain their equitable powers and the power to appoint a receiver over a business in need of restructuring or liquidation. There are many avenues to get to court for this benefit, but the primary path to a receivership is either through a creditor (or group of creditors) filing a lawsuit and seeking the appointment of a receiver. This scenario can be done through cooperation and stipulation but can be hostile as well. The receiver option is available and open to address the needs of insolvency for this rapidly expanding industry.Or, a legal entity, can seek dissolution protection from the state court and seek a neutral dissolution officer (a receiver) to manage that process which may include the infusion of new capital through receivership certificates, the sale of assets to third parties, the negotiation and payment of liens and claims through a claims process and the final restructure of dissolution of the legal entity in a manner similar to a bankruptcy or assignment for benefit of creditors. This voluntary petition is permitted by statute and case law and is a mechanism available to a business that is unable to file for bankruptcy protection but is in dire need of court supervision and authority to work through its insolvency problems. Further, by court order, a receiver is able to establish banking relations where a CRB may be unable.

Typically, it is recommended that any receivership filing whether by creditors, claimants or the business itself, be guided by a well-written, explicit order that outlines the parameters of the receivership, the funding requirements and limits, the rights of claimants and some sort of stay of claims against the receivership estate to give the receiver the time needed to work through all of the issues in that receivership estate. Further, outside funding can be pre-approved by the court and the priority of that funding can be established through the open process that the court provides, much akin to a debtor in possession (DIP) financing motion in bankruptcy court.

Because of the unique circumstance that CRBs find themselves in here in California, where they are a legal and now an “essential” business but still cannot receive the benefits of bankruptcy court, the receiver option is available and open to address the needs of insolvency for this rapidly expanding industry.