Incentive Stock Options

What is an Incentive Stock Option?

Incentive stock options (ISOs) are a type of equity compensation used by companies to reward and retain their employees. ISOs have more favorable tax treatment than non-qualified stock options. While similar to NQSOs, they have a few major differences:

  • ISOs are only granted to company employees.
  • They can only be vested for up to $100,000 of underlying stock value each year
  • ISO must expire after ten years
  • They are not transferrable
  • Long-term capital gain tax is due on the difference between the selling price and exercise price under certain conditions. To receive this tax benefit, ISO holder has to keep the stock for one year and one day after the exercise date and at least two years and one day from the grant date.
  • If the sale date does not meet the above requirements, ISO is disqualified as such and treated as NSO. In that case, you will owe ordinary income tax and short / long-term capital gain taxes
  • Options granted to shareholders with 10% or more ownership must be priced at least at 110% of the Fair Market Value and not be vested for five years from the date of the grant.
  • Alternative Minimum Tax is applicable on the difference between market price and exercise price in the year of exercise. You have to report the difference (also known as the bargain element) to IRS. This may have an impact on your final tax at the end of the year, depending on various other deductions.

Key dates

if you own ISOs, you need to keep track of these important dates:

Grant Date – the date when the options were awarded to you
Vesting Date – the date from when the options can be exercised
Exercise Date – the date when the options are actually exercised
Expiration Date – the date after which the options can no longer be exercised

Important price levels

In addition, you also need to keep a record of the following prices:

Exercise price or strike price – the value at which you can buy the options
Market price at exercise date – the stock value on the exercise date
Sell price – stock value when held and sold after the exercise date
Bargain element – the difference between market price and exercise price at the time of exercise

Tax Considerations of Incentive Stock Options

The granting event of ISOs does not trigger taxes. Receivers of incentive stock options do not have to pay taxes upon their receipt.

Taxes are not due on the vesting date, either. The vesting date opens a window for up to 10 years by which you will be allowed to exercise the ISO.

ISO exercise is not a tax event from the IRS perspective if you meet the holding period requirements by selling your stock after one year and a day after exercise and two years and a day after the grant date. Depending on when you sell the stock after the exercise date, six main scenarios can occur:

Scenario 1

You exercise your options and keep them. No tax due; however, you will have to make an adjustment for Alternative Minimum Tax for the amount of your bargain element.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted ISO equal to 1,000 shares at the exercise price of $10. Your tax rate is 25%. On the exercise date, you exercise the options and decide to keep the shares indefinitely. The market price on that day is $15.

You are not required to report any additional ordinary income.

However, you must adjust your AMT for $5,000.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Scenario 2

You exercise your options and sell them in the same year, less than 12 months from the exercise date. This disqualifies your ISO and converts it to NSO. You will have to report ordinary income on your bargain element and short-term capital gain or loss taxes on the difference between the selling price and the market price at the exercise date. You do not need to adjust for AMT if you sell your ISO within the same calendar year.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted ISO equal to 1,000 shares at an exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for three months in the same calendar when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as an additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25%, you will owe an additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of extra income.

$5,000 x 25% = $1,250

You will also owe $750 on your $3,000 of short-term capital gains at your ordinary income level (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

(18 – 15) x 1,000 = $3,000

$3,000 x 25% = $750

Your total due to IRS will be $2,000

No AMT adjustment is due since you sold your shares in the same calendar year.

Scenario 3

You exercise your options and sell them in the next year, but less than 12 months from the exercise date. Your selling price is less than the market price at exercise. Since you sell less than a year after the exercise, your ISO is disqualified. Because your selling price is lower, IRS allows you to adjust your bargain element to the lower price

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted 1,000 shares at the exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for five months until the next calendar year when the price drops to $12 and then sell all your shares.

Your original bargain element is $5,000

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since the price dropped from $15 to $12, you are allowed to adjust down your bargain element to $2,000 and add it as additional ordinary income.

(12 – 10) x 1,000 = $2,000.

Since your tax rate is 25%, you will owe an additional $500 for taxes on $2,000 of extra income.

$2,000 x 25% = $500

Your total due to IRS will be $500.

You will also have to report an adjustment of -$3,000 ([12 – 15] x 1,000) for AMT in the new calendar year. This will “modify” your prior year AMT adjustment, which was equal to the original bargain element of $5,000.

Scenario 4

You exercise your options and sell them in the next year, but less than 12 months from the exercise date. Your sell price is higher than the market price at exercise. Since you sell less than a year after exercise, your ISO is disqualified.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted ISO equal to 1,000 shares at an exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for 11 months in the next year…when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares. Since you sold the shares before the 24-month mark, ISO shares are disqualified.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as an additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25%, you will owe an additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of extra income.

$5,000 x 25% = $1,250

You will also owe $750 on your $3,000 of short-term capital gains at your ordinary income level (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

(18 – 15) x 1,000 = $3,000

$3,000 x 25% = $750

Your total due to IRS will be $2,000

 

You will also have to report an adjustment of $3,000 ([18 – 15] x 1,000) for AMT in the new calendar year. This will “modify” your prior year AMT adjustment, which was equal to the original bargain element of $5,000.

Scenario 5

You exercise your options and sell them after one year from the exercise date, but less than 24 months from the grant date. Since you sell less than two years after the grant date, your ISO is disqualified.

You will owe ordinary income and long-term capital gain taxes. Your total due to IRS will be $1,700

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted ISO equal to 1,000 shares at an exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for 18 months in the next year when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares. Since you sold the shares before the 24-month mark, ISO shares are disqualified.

You are required to report your bargain element of $5,000 as an additional ordinary income.

(15 – 10) x 1,000 = $5,000.

Since your tax rate is 25%, you will owe an additional $1,250 for taxes on $5,000 of extra income.

$5,000 x 25% = $1,250

You will also owe $750 on your $3,000 of short-term capital gains at your ordinary income level (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

(18 – 15) x 1,000 = $3,000

$3,000 x 15% = $450

Your total due to IRS will be $1,700

You will also have to report an adjustment of $3,000 ([18 – 15] x 1,000) for AMT in the new calendar year. This will “modify” your prior year AMT adjustment, which was equal to the original bargain element of $5,000.

Scenario 6 

You exercise your options and sell them after one year from the exercise date, and after 24 months from the grant date. Since you meet the requirements for ISO, your sale is qualified.

Example: Let’s assume that you are granted ISO equal to 1,000 shares at an exercise price of $10. On the exercise date, the market price is $15. You decide to keep the shares for twelve months after the exercise date and 24 months after the grant date when the price goes up to $18 and then sell all your shares.

You are allowed to report $8,000 of long term capital gain.

(18 – 10) x 1,000 = $8,000.

You will also owe $1,250 on your $8,000 of long-term capital gains at either 0, 15%, or 20%. Most people will have to pay 15% (See my posting about short and long term capital gains and losses)

$8,000 x 15% = $1,250

Your total due to IRS will be $1,250.

You will also have to report an adjustment of $3,000 ([18 – 15] x 1,000) for AMT in the new calendar year. This will “modify” your prior year AMT adjustment, which was equal to the original bargain element of $5,000.

How to minimize the tax impact of Incentive Stock Options?

  1. Meet the holding period requirements for one year after exercise and two years after the grant date. This will give you the most favorable tax treatment.
  2. Watch your tax bracket. Your tax rate increases as your income grow. Depending on the vesting and expiry conditions, you may want to consider exercising your options in phases to avoid crossing over the higher tax bracket. Keep in mind that tax brackets are adjusted every year for inflation and cost of living.
  3. AMT breakeven – you can exercise just the right number of shares to remain below the AMT tax level. Most accounting software will be able to calculate the exact amount.
  4. Use AMT credits when applicable. In the years when you pay AMT, you can rollover the difference between your AMT and regular tax due as a credit for futures years. The caveat is that AMT credit can only be used in the years when you pay regular taxes.
  5. You can donate or give as a gift your low-cost base stocks acquired through the exercise of ESO. You have to follow the holding period requirement to get the most favorable tax treatment.

About Stoyan Panayotov

I am a fee-only financial advisor and the founder of Babylon Wealth Management. As fiduciary advisors, we provide bespoke wealth management and personalized financial planning to busy families in the Bay Area and nationally. Many of our clients are tech workers, physicians, business owners, professionals preparing for retirement and young families looking to build financial independence.

I started Babylon Wealth Management to help young families and successful professionals build, grow and preserve their wealth. Being a fee-only financial advisor, I never earn sales commissions or sell investment products. Furthermore, I am committed to acting in my clients’ best interest by providing trusted advice and bespoke wealth management solutions. I enjoy helping clients develop robust and personalized long-term financial plans to achieve their personal and financial goals.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in Accounting at Varna University of Economics in Bulgaria, at the age of 23, I moved to New York City to pursue a Master of Business Administration at Pace University. I was fortunate enough to have a full merit-based scholarship and finished graduate school with no student loans. Upon completing grad school, I joined the ranks on Wall Street for nearly two years. I specialized in risk management and option strategies for equity and fixed income products for Deutsche Bank and Wells Fargo. In 2006 I obtained a highly recognized CFA designation.

Living in New York without family support was a life-changing experience for me. II arrived at JFK Airport on August 24, 2002. I stayed in a hostel for two weeks and later moved in with three of my fellow Bulgarian students into a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. There was a time in life when all I owned was $200, just enough to pay for the next month’s rent. Many times, I contemplated returning to Bulgaria, but somehow, I always pushed through life’s adversities. I’ve learned to appreciate each moment, big or small, that life presents. These challenges have helped me develop strength and flexibility, which supports my practice as a financial advisor.

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