Incentive stock option

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Incentive stock options (ISOs), are a type of employee stock option that can be granted only to employees and confer a U.S. tax benefit. ISOs are also sometimes referred to as incentive share options or Qualified Stock Options by IRS [1] .

The tax benefit is that on exercise the individual does not have to pay ordinary income tax (nor employment taxes) on the difference between the exercise price and the fair market value of the shares issued (however, the holder may have to pay U.S. alternative minimum tax instead). Instead, if the shares are held for 1 year from the date of exercise and 2 years from the date of grant, then the profit (if any) made on sale of the shares is taxed as long-term capital gain. Long-term capital gain is taxed in the U.S. at lower rates than ordinary income.

Although ISOs have more favorable tax treatment than non-ISOs (aka non-statutory stock option (NSO) or non-qualified stock option (NQO or NQSO)), they also require the holder to take on more risk by having to hold onto the stock for a longer period of time if the holder is to receive optimal tax treatment. However, even if the holder disposes of the stock within a year, it is possible that there will still be marginal tax deferral value (as compared to NQOs) if the holding period, though less than a year, straddles the ending of the taxpayer's taxable reporting period.

Note further that an employer generally does not claim a corporate income tax deduction (which would be in an amount equal to the amount of income recognized by the employee) upon the exercise of its employee's ISO, unless the employee does not meet the holding-period requirements. But see Coughlan, Section 174 R&E Deduction Upon Statutory Stock Option Exercise, 58 Tax Law. 435 (2005). With NQSOs, on the other hand, the employer is always eligible to claim a deduction upon its employee's exercise of the NQSO.

Additionally, there are several other restrictions which have to be met (by the employer or employee) in order to qualify the compensatory stock option as an ISO. For a stock option to qualify as ISO and thus receive special tax treatment under Section 421(a) of the Internal Revenue Code (the "Code"), it must meet the requirements of Section 422 of the Code when granted and at all times beginning from the grant until its exercise. The requirements include:

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  1. ^ TITLE 26 - INTERNAL REVENUE CODE, Subtitle A - Income Taxes, CHAPTER 1 - NORMAL TAXES AND SURTAXES, Regulations § 422 Incentive stock options