by Thea Glazer, CFP®, CDFA™, MS Accounting
Glazer Financial Advisors
When dividing property in a divorce settlement, stock options and restricted stock may be part of the marital estate. This brief overview provides a basic understanding of the factors you need to take into consideration. It does not go into all the many tax and technical issues that are aspects of equity compensation. Seeking professional guidance for your specific circumstances is always a good idea.
Many companies grant their employees equity compensation in addition to their salaries, commissions and cash bonuses. Equity compensation is non-cash compensation representing a form of ownership interest in a company. Among the most common are employee stock options and restricted stock or restricted stock units. In divorce, stock options and restricted stock are property to be divided. The employee’s separate shares are often also considered as income in the calculations of support.
Employee Stock Options (ESOs)
An employee stock option is the right given to an employee to purchase a specified number of shares of the employer’s stock for a specified price and for a specified time. There are two types of ESOs, Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) and Nonqualified Stock Options (NQs). The primary difference is that ISOs have an advantageous tax treatment explained below.
Stock options have a Grant Date, Exercise Price, Vesting Schedule and Expiration date. Example: Company ABC grants John Smith 3,000 nonqualified options on January 4, 2015 at a grant price of $10.50, a four-year annual vesting schedule and an expiration date of January 4, 2025. That means that John can exercise (buy) the 750 shares of stock annually on January 4 from 2016 through 2019. He does not have to exercise any shares until January 3, 2025. If he doesn’t exercise by the date of expiration, they will expire and be worthless.
Taxation of stock options
Nonqualified stock options are taxed at the time of exercise as ordinary income. The amount taxed is the difference between the grant price and the fair market price. Most companies sell enough shares to cover the withholding tax and release the net shares or proceeds if the shares were simultaneously sold. If the shares are held once exercised and sold later, there may be capital gains tax as well. Unless shares are about to expire, most people exercise and sell simultaneously.
Incentive stock options are not taxed when they are exercised. If the shares are held for at least one year from exercise and two years from grant date, the gain is taxed at the advantageous long term capital gains rate.
Restricted Stock (RS) and Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)
Unlike stock options, restricted stock and restricted stock units are actual stock. There is usually no purchase price and, if there is, it is very, very nominal (one cent). Holders of restricted stock have voting rights while holders of restricted stock units do not. Restricted stock units cannot be “underwater” which happens to options when the grant price exceeds the fair market price so they are much less risky. Grants of restricted stock usually have about one-third as many shares as do options. Restricted stock grants have a grant date and vesting schedule. There is no expiration date and usually no grant price.
Taxation of restricted stock
Once a share of restricted stock vests, it is released. Upon release, the fair market value less any purchase price is taxed as ordinary income. Most companies sell enough shares to cover the withholding taxes and release the net shares. There is no decision making needed by the employee like there is regarding when to exercise options. Once restricted stock vests, it is automatically released. Many employees continue to hold the net shares until a time they need the cash, feel the stock has reached a good selling price or want to diversify their portfolios.
Transferability of stock options and restricted stock
Some plans allow NQs to be transferred to the former spouse of the employee, but the majority do not. It is very rare to see ISOs transferable. If they are transferred, they may lose their status as ISOs and fall under the tax rules for NQs.
RS and RSUs are not transferable.
For non-transferable shares of options or restricted stock, the employee holds the shares on behalf of the nonemployee spouse and exercises on his/her behalf or transfers released shares. There are IRS acceptable ways to allocate the taxation so the nonemployee spouse is taxed at his/her rate rather than that of the employee.
Division of equity compensation in divorce
Both stock options and restricted stock shares are divided by formulas. The most commonly used ones are Nelson and Hug.
The Nelson formula is Date of grant to date of separation ÷ Date of grant to date of exercise or release
The Hug formula is Date of hire to date of separation ÷ Date of hire to date of exercise or release
The reason the grants were awarded determines which formula is applicable.
Valuation of stock options and restricted stock
It is rare to value the options rather than to divide the shares. That is because the value is constantly changing so it is imprecise at best. In order to correctly value the options, the following factors are the elements of a complex formula, the Black-Scholes formula:
- Grant price
- Grant date
- Date of expiration
- Vesting schedule
- Current stock price
- Volatility of the stock price
Sometimes valuing the options is the only way to effectuate the property division by offsetting another asset. However, dividing the shares divides both the risk and reward to both spouses. I believe it is preferable when possible.
Collaborative Divorce Offers Flexibility
In collaborative or mediated cases, there is far more flexibility in dividing assets. Unequal divisions are also acceptable if the parties agree and have reasons to do so. In court, such flexibility is not nearly as possible. This is another great reason to consider alternative dispute resolution such as collaborative divorce to allow you to make the best decision possible for your circumstances, rather than a decision forced upon you by a judge.