Joe Burwick, CPA
Companies in many industries can benefit from the Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit, and you may not be aware that you qualify as well. However, your ability to claim the R&D credit hinges on backing up your eligibility with the right support.
Tax advisors need to know the knowledge and effort that went into the development of your product or solution for which you’re claiming the credit (not all the details!). With that, we can help determine if each technology and research activity has qualified research expenses under Internal Revenue Code Section (“Sec.”) 174, and then if those expenses meet the more stringent criteria of Sec. 41 for the R&D tax credit.
Any contemporaneous documentation on the qualifying research activities will help support its claim for the R&D credit. The more you have the better, as thorough documentation can reduce the time your R&D personnel spend with tax advisors in interviews and other meetings.
Do Your QRAs Back Your QREs?
We often find clients have misconceptions about what constitutes important documentation for the R&D tax credit. A simple general ledger account from one department that says “research expenses” will not do. Most companies build financial systems to prepare financial statements or for tax return preparation, but such record keeping often fails to correlate qualified research activities (QRAs) to back up the qualified research expenses (QREs) the company is attempting to claim.
A list of qualified research expenses isn't helpful if the costs cannot be traced to specific projects or activities. Also, under what's called the “Consistency Rule,” you must define QREs in the same manner from year to year.
What’s Needed for Proper R&D Tax Credit Documentation?
What kind of records and documents do you need to keep in order to claim the R&D tax credit?
- Financial information, including information about wages paid to employees directly involved in R&D and employees in direct supervision or support of R&D.
- Recording of R&D activities, preferably to separate accounts, such as bifurcating material and supplies into R&D and non-R&D purposes. (The same holds true regarding separate accounts for outside contractors in any of the four parts of the test to qualify for the credit. Copies of contracts with outside contractors showing who retains rights are also important.)
- Time-allocation determinations with work plans, payroll records, steering committee meetings minutes and similar documentation.
- Design drawings displaying various iterations, such as blueprints, CAD reports (especially that document modifications), project progress reports, and change orders. Your testing documentation can also support successes and failures, and marketing materials that substantiate a new product design can help qualify.
In many cases, reasonable estimates are OK to use, but they need to be supported by quantitative and qualitative evidence. Your tax advisor should meet with company personnel—engineering or project managers, for example—to document the R&D credit activities or determine a plan to document it, such as through employee surveys and interviews.
Burden of Proof
The burden of proof lies with the taxpayer seeking the R&D tax credit. Many pre-packaged R&D credit studies provide the study methodology, but lack information to help substantiate the credit. Nor does the IRS specifically define “sufficient documentation” to claim an R&D credit—but it's important to note that the IRS strongly prefers contemporaneous documentation.