Instead of taking his $26.9 million in earnings directly in the following four years, [Edwards] paid himself a salary of $360,000 a year and took the rest as corporate dividends. Since salary is subject to 2.9% Medicare tax but dividends aren’t, that meant he shielded more than 90% of his income. That’s not necessarily illegal, but dodging such a large chunk of employment tax skates perilously close to the line.
The Internal Revenue Service takes a dim view of such operations and “may collapse the structure entirely and argue the S corporation is not truly a separate entity,” in the words of Tax Adviser magazine. Attorney CPA magazine lists it as No. 11 of its “15 best underutilized tax loopholes,” but warns that the IRS “has successfully litigated cases against individuals, particularly sole shareholders of personal service S corporations, reclassifying such deemed distributions as wages subject to social security taxes.”
As a political matter, the dodge is especially hypocritical because the income limits on which Medicare taxes are paid were lifted by Democrats in 1993 specifically to hit “the rich,” as Mr. Edwards likes to call people in his tax bracket. And the supreme irony? Mr. Edwards has claimed that he set up the subchapter S company to protect himself from legal liability. You know it’s time for tort reform when even the trial lawyers say they’re afraid of getting sued.