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Industrial Automation Companies, Tax & Assurance Guidance

What Expenses Qualify for R&D Tax Credits?

Posted on February 18, 2021 by

Tim Finerty

Tim Finerty

Bryan Powrozek

Bryan Powrozek

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The R&D tax credit is one of the most overlooked opportunities to boost your bottom line. Many business owners fail to claim it under the mistaken belief that they’re not eligible. Among the few who do claim it, many are not aware of all the qualifying expenses they’re leaving on the table.

In part two of our six-part series on R&D tax credits, we’ll explore the wide range of qualifying expenses that companies of all types and sizes may be able to claim. As a reminder, it’s a good idea to consult a tax expert before exposing your company to the financial implications of any new tax credit strategy.

Let’s dig into some specifics about the kinds of expenses that qualify for an R&D tax credit.

A quick refresher on the R&D tax credit

The R&D tax credit (as it was originally conceived in the early 1980s) is meant to reward companies for investing in innovation that leads to long term business growth and job creation. When it comes to the question of qualifying expenses, it’s important to remember that the process does not have to lead to a breakthrough discovery that’s new to the world. In fact, there’s no requirement that the experimentation has to be successful in any given tax year – only that it’s properly documented as pursuing some discovery that’s meaningful to your individual business.

Qualifying expenses for the R&D tax credit

First, let’s look at activities, which in general terms must pass a four-part IRS test. They must:

  1. Serve a qualifying purpose for something fundamental to your business
  2. Address an essential technological uncertainty
  3. Be subject to measurement by a hard science of some sort
  4. Follow a documented process of experimentation

The tax credit rules allow you to claim various percentages of labor, supply or outsourcing costs depending on conditions outlined in the corresponding IRS and Treasury codes, and all work must be performed inside the U.S.

  • Taxable wages paid to employees who directly contribute to qualified research activities
  • Taxable wages paid to people who directly assist such employees
  • Taxable wages paid to people who directly supervise such employees
  • Payments to contractors who perform direct services in the U.S. in support of such work
  • Payments to vendors who supply materials consumed in support of such work

By way of example, let’s say that you run a company that manufacturers paint coatings that wants to introduce improved curing additives to the market. A prescribed portion of the taxable wages of the engineer running the test routines qualifies, as do the taxable wages of the engineer’s direct leader or an assistant who may directly support the engineer by maintaining and cleaning the test apparatus.

In this example, the wages of the engineering department’s administrative assistant or the leader of the engineer’s boss are not eligible expenses. Neither are the costs of utilities, IT or phone service connected to the test space, or any rent or capital costs for the space itself.

The scientific-sounding name of the R&D tax credit might create the false impression that only companies like life science, pharmaceutical or microelectronics giants qualify. In fact, many small, medium and even startup business in many markets are likely eligible. Here are just a few:

  • Engineering
  • Software developers
  • Custom Machine builders
  • Plastic Injection molder
  • Tool and Die companies
  • Automation companies
  • Prototype and Precision manufacturing

Expenses that are not eligible for the R&D tax credit

Beyond the three types of expenses described earlier, there are expenses that are unambiguously out of bounds for R&D tax credit qualification.

Capital investments for equipment or property are not eligible. You can’t claim the costs of routine focus group, consumer preference or market research, or testing or quality assurance activities for existing services or products.

The important thing is to keep detailed records. Most of what you need may already be captured in your existing business documentation. This might include:

  • Project budgets, schedules and progress notes
  • Detailed employee assignment and payroll records
  • Experimentation logs and observation notes
  • Supply inventories, purchase orders, receipts and other procurement documentation
  • Contractor bids, proposals and scope documentation

Interested in learning more about R&D tax credits?
Check out the rest of our R&D Roundup series:

  1. Your Guide to R&D Tax Credits
  2. How to Calculate R&D Tax Credits
  3. How to Claim R&D Tax Credits

Contact Us

Clayton & McKervey can evaluate your documentation and help you capture all of the qualified expenditures you’re eligible to claim. If you’re considering the R&D tax credit, or currently claim the credit but are unsure about the impact recent IRS code changes may have on your tax return, we can help you understand your options, check federal and possible state eligibility and create a strategy to utilize the credit to its fullest potential. For additional information, call us at 248.208.8860 or contact us today. We look forward to speaking with you soon.

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Tim Finerty

Shareholder, Industrial Automation

Tim provides tax, accounting and consulting support to help industrial automation companies maximize profitability.

Bryan Powrozek

Senior Manager, Industrial Automation

As the leader of the firm's industrial automation group and host of The Sound of Automation podcast, Bryan helps owners free up cash flow and scale their businesses.

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