In partnerships and most limited liability companies (LLCs), the business owners don’t receive salaries. Instead, they get a share of the profits. That can be problematic if the business makes little or no profit — which is often the case in the early stages of a new venture. Guaranteed payments are a way to solve the problem. They reward partners for their services by guaranteeing them a minimum payment, whatever the company’s profitability. Here’s a breakdown of how guaranteed payments work, how they compare to other types of income, their tax implications and how to track them with software.

What Are Guaranteed Payments?

Guaranteed payments ensure that a partner gets a guaranteed minimum amount, even if the business makes little or no profit. The partners must establish the initial terms for these guaranteed payments when they form the business, as part of their operating agreement. The operating agreement should set out the guaranteed payment value and the payment schedule for each partner.

A lot of growing businesses are structured as partnerships, including many LLCs. Examples include legal, accounting, consulting and other professional services firms, but there are many others. In these businesses, the partners don’t get paid salaries — they are rewarded by receiving a share of the profits. However, businesses don’t always make a profit, especially in the startup phase. But some of the partners may need a steady income, especially if they’re working full time to build up the business.

Guaranteed payments are often designed to reward partners for their contributions to the firm’s success, such as their labor, management skills or ability to bring in new business. For example, Mary plays the lead role in a consulting business partnership, managing day-to-day operations and helping to bring in new clients. The partnership’s operating agreement states that Mary should be guaranteed $50,000 per year. Mary will receive payments of $2083.33 two times a month as outlined in her payment schedule.

Key Takeaways

  • Guaranteed payments in partnerships and LLCs can provide partners with a reliable income stream, even if the business is not profitable.
  • Guaranteed payments stipulate that a partner must receive at least a minimum amount each year.
  • Partners must establish the guaranteed payment amounts and payment schedule at the time the company is formed, as part of their operating agreement .
  • The partnership records guaranteed payments as business expenses, and partners report them as ordinary income on their personal tax returns.

Guaranteed Payments Explained

Guaranteed payments are typically structured to ensure that partners receive at least a minimum income amount every year. But the portion of that amount that’s designated as a guaranteed payment can depend on how much profit they receive from the partnership. Here’s an example illustrating how this works.

Paige and Perry own equal shares in their partnership. Their operating agreement specifies that each partner gets 50% of the net income — but not less than $40,000 per year.

At the end of the first year, the business posts a net profit of $20,000. Since each partner gets 50% of the net income, that’s $10,000 for each partner. In addition, each partner receives a $30,000 guaranteed payment to top up the amount to the minimum of $40,000 spelled out in the operating agreement.

In its second year, the business experiences healthy growth and net income surges to $100,000. Each partner receives a profit distribution of $50,000, or half of the total net profit. Because each partner’s share of the profit exceeds the $40,000 minimum defined in the operating agreement, no guaranteed payments are made.

Guaranteed Payments vs. Salaries vs. Draws

Business owners and partners can receive payment in a variety of ways, depending on certain factors, such as the structure of the business. Guaranteed payments are one method; draws and salaries are others. It’s important to understand the differences.

  • Guaranteed payments are used by businesses structured as partnerships, including LLCs. With these types of business, partners don’t take salaries, so guaranteed payments are a way to ensure that they get a steady income stream, even if the business doesn’t make a profit. The amounts and timing of guaranteed payments must be defined in the business’s operating agreement. Guaranteed payments are treated as business expenses by the partnership. Payroll taxes are not withheld on guaranteed payments.
  • Member Draws are used by partnerships and also by sole proprietorships. Owners simply transfer cash periodically from the business to themselves, typically when the business has adequate cash available. Draws are considered to be reductions in the owner’s equity in the business, not business expenses. Compared to guaranteed payments, draws provide a more flexible way to remunerate business owners. Unlike guaranteed payments, draws don’t have to occur according to a predetermined schedule, and their amounts are not fixed. Payroll taxes are not withheld on draws.
  • Salaries are paid by businesses that are structured as S or C corporations, as well as LLCs that are taxed as corporations. Business owners are treated as employees and are paid a regular salary. Payroll taxes are withheld on salaries.

Guaranteed Payments to Partners and the IRS

Partnerships and most LLCs are treated as pass-through entities for tax purposes. This means that unlike a corporation, the business doesn’t pay income tax itself. Instead, the profits (or losses), as well as any guaranteed payments, pass through to the owners. The owners then report those payments on their personal tax returns and pay income taxes on the money they receive. The partnership must also report its profit to the IRS and provide a breakdown of each partner’s share of the profit.

Guaranteed payments are recorded as business expenses by the partnership, so they reduce the business’s net profit. Expense management software can help companies make sure they accurately track these business expenses.

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Each partner includes their guaranteed payment, along with their share of the profit, on their personal tax return. Partners pay income tax on their guaranteed payments and profit distribution; both items are taxed as ordinary income.

The IRS considers partners to be self-employed when they are performing services for the partnership, so partners must additionally pay self-employment taxes on their guaranteed payment. General partners — those who play an active role in business operations — also pay self-employment taxes on their share of the profits. Limited partners, who aren’t involved in day-to-day operations, generally pay self-employment taxes only on any guaranteed payments they receive.

The 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has complicated the tax picture for guaranteed payments. That’s because it allows partners to deduct 20% of the partnership’s qualified business income (QBI) from their federal tax liability. Because guaranteed payments are treated as a category of business expense, they reduce the business’s QBI and the corresponding deduction amount. So, in some cases, partners could pay less income tax if a smaller portion of their income comes from a guaranteed payment and a larger portion comes from a profit distribution.

Further complicating the picture, partners may be subject to a variety of state and local taxes on their guaranteed payments and profit distributions.

Fiscal Year and Calendar Year Considerations for Guaranteed Payments

The timing of guaranteed payments can have a significant impact on partners’ income and tax liability — especially if the partnership’s doesn’t coincide with the calendar year. That’s because a partner must report guaranteed payments in the calendar year that includes the end of the partnership’s corresponding fiscal year.

For example, consider a partnership whose fiscal year ends in September 2023. The partnership makes guaranteed payments the following month, in October 2023 — early in its 2024 fiscal year. Accordingly, the partnership records the expense during its 2024 fiscal year, which ends in September 2024. Partners must report the guaranteed payment on their 2024 tax returns — even though they received the money during 2023.

Track Your Business Expenses and Stay Compliant With Software

For growing businesses, tracking income and expenses — including guaranteed payments — can quickly become extremely complex, time-consuming and error-prone. automates and simplifies the entire accounting process faster. Businesses can customize workflows and approval processes to meet unique requirements. Real-time dashboards and analytics tools enable finance teams to track business performance and drill into details. And because NetSuite is cloud-based, you can access data from anywhere at any time, not just when you’re in the office. As your business grows, NetSuite’s expense management software seamlessly integrates with NetSuite financial management and other applications within NetSuite’s unified ERP platform, including inventory and order management, HR, CRM and ecommerce.

Guaranteed payments are a way to reward partners with a steady, predictable income, regardless of whether the business is making a profit. They’re particularly useful early in the life of a business, when the partnership isn’t yet generating much profit. It’s important to remember that the payments must be defined in the partners’ original operating agreement and that they require careful tax-reporting treatment.

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Guaranteed Payments FAQs

What is the relationship between guaranteed payments and profit sharing distributions?

The balance between guaranteed payment and profit distribution varies, depending on how much profit the business makes. Guaranteed payments come into play if a partnership’s operating agreement specifies that a partner should receive a minimum amount each year. If the partner’s profit distribution isn’t enough to reach that minimum, a guaranteed payment is made to make up the difference.

What are the benefits of guaranteed payments?

Guaranteed payments provide partners with a reliable income stream, especially during the business’s startup period. Guaranteed payments also benefit the partnership in several ways. The guaranteed payments to a partner are deducted as expenses, therefore reducing the profit and tax burden passed through to other partners. The partnership’s operating expenses are also more predictable.

Are guaranteed payments included in income?

For the partnership, guaranteed payments are recorded as business expenses. Partners receiving guaranteed payments report them as ordinary income, subject to their individual and self-employment tax rate.

What is the difference between a guaranteed payment and a distribution?

A distribution is a share of the business profits. Guaranteed payments are an amount that is “guaranteed” to be paid, regardless of the partnerships’ profitability.