§318 Option Definition | US International Tax Lawyer & Attorney
This article continues our series of articles on the IRC (Internal Revenue Code) §318 constructive ownership rules. In this article, I would like to introduce the readers to the infamous §318 option attribution rules. Before we delve into the discussion of the constructive ownership rules for options, however, it is important to understand what “option” actually means for the purpose of §318. Hence, today, I will focus on the §318 option definition.
§318 Option Definition: Main Rule
An option is a right to obtain stock at a certain price and date. I want to emphasize that option is not an obligation, it is a right which a taxpayer may or may not ever exercise.
Such a broad §318 option definition includes a great variety of options: options to purchase stock, option to acquire unissued stocks (as long as a shareholder has the right to obtain stock at his election – see Rev. Rul. 68-601), certain warrants and debentures that may be converted into stocks (as long as there are no contingencies, other than time, that must be met before the conversions rights can be exercised – see FSA 200244003), et cetera.
§318 Option Definition: Rights Not Considered Options
Not all rights to acquire stock, however, are considered options for the purposes of §318 option definition. There is a large number of exceptions, but all of them are centered around the concept of some type of restrictions on the exercise of the option. I will list below the five most popular exceptions which are not considered options under §318(a)(4):
First, a right to acquire stock is not an option if the optionee does not have control over the exercise of the option. For example, if there are many contingencies which can prevent exercise of an option, then this is not an option of the purposes of §318(a)(4). See FSA 199915007.
Second, a corporation’s right to buy back its own stocks is not an option for the purposes of §318. Rev. Rul. 69-562.
Third, a right of first refusal is not an option for the purposes of §318. For example, if the right to purchase stock is contingent on the obligor’s decision to sell, then this is not an option under §318(a)(4). TAM 8106008. We can even broaden the rule not only to a right of first refusal, but to almost all situations where the exercise of option depends on the other party’s decision to sell.
Fourth, certain stock appreciation rights are not options if they only entitle the owner of these rights to cash benefits, but do not permit acquisition of stock. Of course, if contract entitles the owner to the right to acquire stocks, then such stock appreciation rights may actually be options §318. See PLR 9341019.
Finally, the right to acquire stocks is not an option under §318 if such transfer is restricted and requires consent. For example, the IRS held in TAM 9410003 that such an arrangement (i.e. restriction on the transfer of shares without other shareholders’ consent) combined with the right of first refusal did not constitute an option to acquire those shares.
§318 Option Definition: Exceptions to Restrictions
I would like to warn the readers, however, that not all restrictions on exercise of an option automatically exclude a right to acquire a stock from the §318 option definition. We can outline two broad exceptions to restrictions here.
First, where the control over the decision to exercise the option rests with the holder of the right to purchase a stock, such a restriction is insufficient to prevent this arrangement to be treated as an option. See Rev. Rul. 68-601.
Second, where the restriction is fixed in time. For example, under FSA 200244003, a warrant is an option if there are no contingencies or limitations on the right to exercise other than time limitation. Similarly, if the right to acquire shares can only be exercised on a fixed date, it is an option. Rev. Rul. 89-64.
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