February 22, 2017 in Blog, Startup Advice

Claim R&D credits against federal payroll withholding

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By Carli McDonald and Olivia Backs

In 2016, Congress re-vamped its tax credit policies by permanently extending the R&D Tax Credit through the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (“PATH Act”). This act created several substantial opportunities previously unutilized by many “startup” companies in obtaining Research & Development (“R&D”) Tax Credits.

Traditional startup companies typically don’t have taxable income for several years. Even though these companies are not generating taxable income, they still spend considerable amounts of money on R&D, with a majority stemming from wages subject to payroll tax. This previously led to unused R&D Tax Credits that were carried forward to future taxable years until companies began making a profit.


Qualified small businesses can now take advantage of the credit’s lucrative tax benefits by applying it against payroll withholding. Effective for all tax years beginning after Dec. 31, 2015, any qualified small business may elect to apply their R&D Credits against payroll tax liability up to $250,000 per year. To be considered a qualified small business, a company must meet the following criteria:

  1. Less than $5 million in gross receipts for the current tax year; and
  2. Gross receipts for no more than 5 years, including the current tax year.

Your company can apply the credit against the first quarter following the filing of its federal tax return. For example, a qualified small business with $2 million in gross receipts in 2016 can apply their 2016 R&D Tax Credit toward their payroll tax liability up to $250,000 per year on the company’s 2017 quarterly payroll withholding on IRS Form 941.


For companies to start taking advantage of their R&D Credits, they must:

  • Engage a CPA firm to perform an R&D Tax Credit study;
  • Prepare and file the following IRS Forms with the company annual income tax return: Form 6765, Credit for Increasing Research Activities and Form 3800, General Business Credit; and
  • Prepare and file IRS Form 8974, Qualified Small Business Payroll Tax Credit for Increasing Research Activities, which is attached to IRS Form 941 quarterly.

The IRS has officially released the 2016 Forms 6765 and 3800, and will release the current Forms 8974 and 941 shortly. As a final reminder, it is imperative companies document their qualifying R&D activities regardless of taxable income, as the credit must be calculated with a filed federal return before claiming the credits against payroll tax.

Ms. McDonald is partner-in-charge of R&D Tax Credit Services and Ms. Backs is a tax associate at Aprio, a 2017 ATDC Program Sponsor.

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