7 Myths About the Research and Development Tax Credit for Small Business Owners

Gene Marks and Ben Gran

[This article has been updated to reflect the new tax law that went into effect on January 1, 2018]

The Research and Development Tax Credit (sometimes called Research and Experimentation, or just the R&D Tax Credit) is a business credit that you can take against your taxes so long as you have qualified research and development expenses. The credit was made permanent by Congress in late 2015. Many of my clients are unaware of it, and those who do know about it have a few misconceptions.

First of all, as part of the flurry of activity in Washington related to the tax law changes that took effect in January 2018, there was some confusion about the future of the R&D Tax Credit. The first version of the Senate’s tax bill appeared to put the R&D Tax Credit in doubt: According to The Wall Street Journal, there was a mistake made in drafting the Senate bill (in an attempt to fix a disparity in the Corporate Alternative Minimum Tax) that unintentionally might have caused many companies to miss out on the R&D Tax Credit.

However, after the joint negotiations between the Senate and House that resulted in the final tax bill, the R&D Tax Credit was still intact. That is good news, because — according to sources cited in The Wall Street Journal — companies are expected to claim $10.3 billion in research credits in 2018. The R&D Tax Credit is a major driver of American innovation, and rewards companies for taking risks with groundbreaking research.

So allow me to refute some of the more popular myths you may have heard, and attempt to clear up any confusion, about the Research and Development Tax Credit.

Myth #1: It’s only for pharmaceutical companies

The Research and Development Tax Credit is not just for pharmaceutical companies. The R&D Tax Credit can be used by companies, small and large, in industries ranging from wine making to ship building.

Myth #2: The R&D Tax Credit can only be applied to income tax

This is not true. If you’re a small business or startup with less than $5 million in yearly revenue, you can take up to $250,000 of the R&D Tax Credit against your payroll taxes for up to five years. So, even if you don’t have any income or are subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax calculation, you may still be able to take advantage of this provision.

Myth #3: Your accountant can help you with the R&D Tax Credit

Perhaps, but determining expenses for the R&D Tax Credit can be complicated and, in the world of finance, things have become more and more specialized. Your accountant, as good as he or she may be, may not be up to speed on the intricacies of the calculations required. The best accountants will work with or recommend experts who specialize in the field of state and federal tax incentives and credits. (Full instructions on the R&D Tax Credit are found in IRS Form 6765Credit for Increasing Research Activities.)

Myth #4: You don’t do work that would qualify for the credit

You probably do. In fact, there are lots of things your staff are doing internally that could be considered research and development. You could be developing, engineering, designing, or researching a new product or even working on product alternatives. (Here are more details about the types of research expenditures that qualify for an R&D Tax Credit.) If you’re putting out products, it’s worth asking your accountant whether or not you qualify.

Myth #5: Outsourced development doesn’t qualify

You can qualify for the credit even if you don’t have any full-time in-house employees who are doing R&D work — contract labor also qualifies for the credit (so long as the expenses are related to the activities listed in Myth #4). This means that money spent on outside contractors and R&D firms — as well as internal costs of payroll, taxes, benefits, materials, supplies, and related overhead costs — qualify as well. Just remember to keep good records, so that it’s easy to figure out these expenses and perform the calculation.

Myth #6: The calculation is complex

Not so. All you do is figure out how much you spent on qualified research and development during the three preceding tax years, on average, and then multiply by 50%. That’s the base. The credit is 14% of any expenses above that base. The calculation really isn’t complex. What’s more complex is the determination of “qualified” research and development expenses, which should be the job of an outside expert — it’s definitely worth hiring some help from a tax expert to make sure you’re claiming the right credits that apply to your business.

Myth #7: The savings aren’t worth it

Are you kidding? There are many examples of companies saving tons of money because of the R&D Tax Credit. Tax Point Advisors, a firm that specializes in the calculation, lists clients of theirs that have seen big benefits, including a contractor who saved $300,000 and a construction firm that claimed credits in excess of $1 million. Remember, this is a credit, not a deduction, so any amounts you reap would be applied directly against taxes owed.

I’ve been talking up the R&D Tax Credit to my clients and community over the past year. Regardless of what your company does, it’s worth looking into this tax credit — it’s a popular and flexible tax credit that can benefit all kinds of small businesses that are engaged in research and engineering — unless you enjoy giving more money than necessary to the government. And according to the latest details of the changes to the tax law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2018, the R&D Tax Credit is here to stay — and is likely to be an ongoing part of small businesses’ annual tax strategies.

Join writer and small business owner Gene Marks each Wednesday on the Small Biz Ahead podcast. You can also submit a question for Gene to answer on the podcast.

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