A question I often get from clients and friends – “I have these things called Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) – what are they and how do they work?”
An RSU is a contractual right to receive company shares or an equivalent cash payment at some point in the future. They are an increasingly popular form of equity award offered by companies of all shapes and sizes. Many companies here in the Raleigh-Durham area have shifted to RSUs because they are administratively convenient, are “easy” for employees to understand, and can be structured in a way that helps attract and retain key employees and drive performance.
So with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what RSUs are and how they can work for you.
YOU’VE BEEN GRANTED RSUS: NOW WHAT?
If you’ve been granted RSUs, congratulations! It’s most certainly not a bad thing! You have likely been given this equity award because you are valued, and your employer wants you to stay with the company and meet certain performance benchmarks. But it’s important to understand that your employer has merely promised to deliver shares (or an equivalent cash payment) to you at a future date. As such, RSUs can be thought of as a form of deferred compensation.
You do not owe any tax at the time of the RSU grant. In fact, you will not owe tax until you actually receive the shares. RSUs typically come with a vesting schedule, and there may be performance conditions that must be satisfied before the stock can be delivered. Unlike a stock option, your RSU has intrinsic value; whether the value of the company increases or decreases after the grant, the stock will have value and can never be “out of the money.”
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN RSUS VEST?
Once RSUs vest, they will be delivered to you and you will recognize ordinary income based on the fair market value of the stock at the time of delivery. Unlike with stock options, no analysis regarding when to exercise is needed. In most cases, the employer will withhold shares in order to cover the tax, delivering the net shares to you. You may have additional options for withholding, you may be able to elect to receive cash instead of stock, or you may be able to defer the delivery of the shares beyond the vesting date. Be sure to check your plan document to ensure that you understand all of your options.
Once you own the employer stock, you are free to hold it or sell it immediately. Your cost basis in the shares is the fair market value on the date they were delivered. So, if you sell the shares immediately, there will be no additional taxable gain. But if you choose to hold the shares and sell them down the road? You would pay capital gains tax on any gains earned since you acquired the shares; if the shares decrease in value, you would have a capital loss that you can use to offset other capital gains.
PLANNING QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD BE ASKING
- Should I hold or sell?
- What happens if I leave the company?
- What if I’m planning to retire?
- What’s the risk?
- Will I be pushed into a higher tax bracket?
RSUs can be a valuable piece of an employee benefits package, especially when they are incorporated into a financial plan. As you can see – there are lots of moving parts and several important questions that need to be reviewed. Working with a financial advisor and tax professional can help you plan accordingly and make the most out of your RSUs.
Still confused or want to talk about your situation – contact us and we’d be happy to schedule a time that is convenient for you.