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Show Me the Nonbusiness Income? Missouri Supreme Court Expansively Interprets Functional Test to Conclude Rabbi Trust Income is Business Income

On April 15, 2014, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that income from a trust used to fund an executive deferred compensation plan (a “rabbi trust”) was apportionable business income. MINACT, Inc. v. Director of Revenue, No. SC93162 (Mo. Apr. 15, 2014).  The taxpayer, MINACT, Inc., is a Mississippi-based corporation that contracts with the federal government to manage its education and job training programs.

MINACT reported the trust income as nonbusiness income on its 2007 Missouri corporate income tax return, allocating all the income to Mississippi.  The Missouri director of revenue disagreed with the taxpayer and determined that the trust income was business income.  MINACT appealed to the Administrative Hearing Commission, which overturned the director’s decision, finding that the trust income was nonbusiness income “because it was ‘not attributable to the acquisition, management, and disposition of property constituting an integral part of MINACT’s regular business. …’”  (Opinion at 3.)  The director appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court.

The Missouri Supreme Court analyzed whether the trust income was business income under the state’s statutory UDITPA definition of “business income,” which Missouri interprets to include both a transactional and a functional test.  (Opinion at 4-5.)  See, e.g., ABB C-E Nuclear Power Inc. v. Dir. of Revenue, 215 S.W.3d 85 (Mo. 2007) (income must fail to satisfy both tests to be nonbusiness income).  The Supreme Court agreed with the Commission that the trust income was not business income under the transactional test (MINACT earned the income from investing, not from its regular business of managing job training programs), but it found that the income was business income under the functional test because MINACT established its executive deferred compensation plan to attract and retain key employees who were engaged in MINACT’s regular business operations.  (Opinion at 5.)  The Court cited California and United States Tax Court cases for the notion that “attracting and retaining key employees is an important business purpose” and found that the employees who benefitted from the rabbi trust furthered MINACT’s business by providing capable leadership. (Opinion at 5, 7.)  Using this same reasoning, the Court also rejected MINACT’s constitutional challenges.

This is the third ruling of which we are aware finding that income earned from investments in employee-related funds meet the functional test for business income.  In Va. Tax Comm’r Ruling, No. 03-60 (Aug. 8, 2003), the Virginia Tax Commissioner held that rabbi trust income as nonbusiness income because “attracting and retaining quality corporate officers is an integral part of the operations of any business . . .”  Similarly, in Hoechst Celanese Corp. v. Franchise Tax Bd., 106 Cal. Rptr. 2d 548, 570-71 (Cal. 2001), the California Supreme Court held that income from an employer’s reversion of pension plan assets was business income under the functional test because the employer created the plan to retain and attract employees, which the court found integral to the employer’s business operations.

© 2021 McDermott Will & EmeryNational Law Review, Volume IV, Number 140
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About this Author

In 1934 E.H. McDermott opened a law practice that focused exclusively on taxes. As chief counsel to the Joint Committee on Taxation of the United States Congress, McDermott observed firsthand how the rapidly expanding federal tax laws were affecting businesses and individuals. He recognized the need for a law firm to assist people and their businesses to understand and comply with their changing tax obligations.

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