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The QBI Deduction: A Simple Guide

By Janet Berry-Johnson, CPA on October 16, 2019

What is the qualified business income deduction?

The qualified business income (QBI) deduction, also known as Section 199A, allows owners of pass-through businesses to claim a tax deduction worth up to 20 percent of their qualified business income. It was introduced as part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Now would be a good time to pause for a few definitions.

A pass-through business is a sole proprietorship, partnership, LLC or S corporation. The term “pass-through” comes from the way these entities are taxed. Unlike a C corporation, which pays corporate federal income taxes, a pass-through entity’s business income “passes through” to the owner’s individual income tax return. In other words, “the business” doesn’t file taxes, the owners do.

Qualified business income is the business’ net income, with a few exceptions. QBI doesn’t include:

  • investment income, such as capital gains or losses, dividends, or interest

  • income from businesses located outside of the U.S.

The IRS has a full list of exceptions to QBI in its Facts About the Qualified Business Income Deduction.

Who qualifies for the QBI deduction?

The QBI deduction is only available to owners of pass-through businesses, but the limitations don’t end there. If your business is a “specified service trade or business”, your QBI deduction may be limited or disappear entirely once your total taxable income reaches a certain limit.

A specified service trade or business (SSTB) is a service-based business (other than engineering or architecture) where the business depends on the reputation or skill of its employees or owners. That’s a broad definition, but it includes law firms, medical practices, consulting firms, professional athletes, accountants, financial advisors, performers, investment managers, and more.

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If you have a specified service trade or business

You can determine whether you get the full 20 percent deduction, a limited deduction, or no deduction at all based on your total taxable income.

Total taxable income refers to all the taxpayer’s income before the QBI deduction is applied. This may include wages from other jobs, wages earned by your spouse (if married and filing a joint return), interest and dividends, capital gains, rental income, and more. For most taxpayers, this will be the adjusted gross income shown on Form 1040.

Filing status Total taxable income Available deduction
Single < $157,500 20%
Single $157,500 – 207,500 Partial deduction for SSTBs
Single > $207,500 No deduction for SSTBs
Married Filing Jointly < $315,000 20% deduction
Married Filing Jointly $315,000 - $415,000 Partial deduction for SSTBs
Married Filing Jointly > $415,000 No deduction for SSTBs

If you don’t have a specified service trade or business

If your business is not an SSTB, but you have taxable income greater than $207,500 for a single filer or $415,000 for a married couple filing jointly, your QBI deduction is limited to the greater of:

  • 50 percent of your share of the W-2 wages paid out in the business, or

  • 25 percent of your share of the W-2 wages paid out in the business, plus 2.5 percent of qualified property

Qualified property includes all tangible, depreciable property that hasn’t reached the end of its depreciable life. For most property, the depreciable life is 10 years. For real estate, the depreciable life may be up to 39 years.

For both SSTBs and non-SSTBs

If the business owner has dividends from a real estate investment trust or publicly traded partnership income, there is a second deduction worth up to 20 percent of that income, which gets added to the QBI deduction.

After calculating the two deductions, add them together. Then calculate your overall limitation by taking 20 percent of:

  • Your taxable income for the year (before considering the QBI deduction), minus

  • Net capital gains, including qualified dividend income taxed at capital gains rates

This overall limitation ensures that the 20 percent deduction isn’t taken against income that is already taxed at the lower capital gains tax rate.

How to calculate the QBI deduction

As you’ve probably noticed by now, the QBI deduction gets complex fast. The best way to figure out whether it applies to your business is to take it step-by-step.

Step 1: Determine whether your business is a specified service business. The IRS Qualified Business Income FAQs go into greater detail about the kinds of businesses that qualify as an SSTB.

Step 2: Calculate your total taxable income for the year. If it’s less than $157,500 ($315,000 if married filing jointly) then you don’t need to worry about the type of business. You can take the full 20 percent QBI deduction.

Step 3: If your business is an SSTB and your total taxable income is $207,500 or more ($415,000 or more for a married couple filing jointly), stop here. Your income is too high to claim the deduction.

If your business is not an SSTB, and your total taxable income is between $157,500 and $207,500 ($315,000 and $415,000 if married filing jointly), you can claim the full 20 percent deduction.

If your business is an SSTB and your total taxable income is between $157,500 and $207,500 ($315,000 and $415,000 if married filing jointly), then continue to the next step to calculate your limited deduction.

Step 4: If your business is an SSTB with income in the phase-out range, you’ll calculate your deduction by taking 20 percent of your qualified business income and applying the limitation of:

  • 50 percent of your share of W-2 wages paid by the business, or

  • 25 percent of those wages, plus 2.5 percent of your share of qualified property

Compare these calculations to 20 percent of your QBI and deduct the smaller amount.

Calculating the QBI deduction: an example

To give you an example of how the QBI deduction works in the real world, say Kate is a marketing consultant with $10,000 in qualified property. She has one part-time employee who earns $20,000 per year. Kate is married, and as a consultant, she is in a specialized service business. Let’s look at three scenarios:

  1. Kate’s total taxable income is less than $315,000, so her deduction is not limited,

  2. Kate’s total taxable income is more than $315,000 but less than $415,000, so her deduction is limited, and

  3. Kate’s total taxable income is more than $415,000, so no deduction is available.

No Limitation Limited Deduction No Deduction
Taxable Income $150,000 $400,000 $575,000
QBI (before limit) $75,000 $75,000 $75,000
Subject to QBI Limit? No Partial Yes
QBI (after limit) $75,000 $11,250 $0
Wages $20,000 $20,000 $20,000
Subject to wage limit? No Partial No
Allowable deduction $15,000 $1,612.50 $0

The Form 1040 Instructions and IRS Publication 535 contain worksheets you can use to calculate the deduction. Use the worksheet in the Form 1040 instructions if your taxable income before the QBI deduction isn’t more than $157,500 ($315,000 if married filing jointly). Use the Publication 535 worksheet if your taxable income before the QBI deduction is higher than that threshold.

Starting with 2019 returns (filed in 2020), the IRS will require business owners who claim the QBI deduction to attach Form 8995 to their returns. Form 8995 is currently in draft form but contains the same computation found in the 2018 Form 1040 Instructions.

Bottom line

If all of this sounds confusing, it is. The QBI deduction provides a generous tax break for businesses that qualify to claim it. However, as the rules and definitions above make clear, determining who can claim the QBI deduction and calculating it is no easy task.

While it’s always a good idea for small business owners to read up on available deductions and get a good understanding of which tax breaks might apply to them, when it comes to actually calculating the QBI deduction, you may want to leave that to your accountant.

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This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post. Bench assumes no liability for actions taken in reliance upon the information contained herein.

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