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The Finance Bill 2017 has introduced a tax efficient share option scheme for employees of SMEs. The Finance Bill provides that from 1 January 2018, SMEs in Ireland will be able to grant KEEP (Key Employee Engagement Programme) share options to their employees.

The change in a tax treatment of these share options means an employee may exercise a “qualifying” share option without incurring the liability to income tax, PRSI and USC that he would have under the current rules. Currently, gains arising on the exercise of a share option at a discount on market value are subject to income tax, PRSI and USC. However, KEEP provides that tax on such shares will be deferred until the shares are disposed of and the employee will pay only capital gains tax at 33% on his profit when the shares are sold.

The KEEP Scheme was introduced to facilitate the use of share-based remuneration to attract and retain key employees in unquoted companies.

A number of conditions must be satisfied in order to avail this tax advantageous KEEP Share Option incentive, which are briefly set out below:

Qualifying share options

  • Shares must be new, ordinary fully paid up with no preferential, current or future rights to dividends or assets on a winding up or redemption
  • Share options must have an exercise price that is not less than the market value of the underlying shares on the date the option is granted
  • There must be a written contract in place setting out number and type of shares, option price and exercise period
  • Share options cannot be exercised within 12 months of grant other than in limited circumstances and options cannot be exercised more than 10 years after date of grant
  • Share options must be granted for bona fide commercial purposes the main purpose of which is to recruit or retain employees in the company and not part of a tax avoidance scheme or arrangement.

Qualifying company

  • For the purpose of the relief the company must be a “qualifying” company i.e. must have been Ireland/EEA incorporated and Irish resident or carrying on a business in Ireland through a branch or agency
  • Qualifying company must be carrying on trading activities with the exception of certain excluded activities set out in legislation. The most notable of these excluded activities include professional service companies, companies dealing in or developing land, financial activities and the building and construction industry
  • The company must be unquoted and remain within the definition of an SME i.e. a company with less than 250 employees and with turnover less than €50m or less than €43m balance sheet
  • The company can only have a maximum of €3m value of share options in issue and unexercised at any one time.

Qualifying individual

  • Must be a fulltime employee/director working at least 30 hours per week
  • The employment held must be capable of being held for at least a further 12 months from the date the option is granted
  • The employee must not acquire or be connected to a person who controls more than 15% of the ordinary share capital of the company during option period
  • Market value of all shares which can be granted in any year of assessment to an employee cannot exceed €100k in any one tax year, €250k in any three consecutive years or 50% of the employee’s annual emoluments for the year in which the option is granted.

KEEP will be available for qualifying share options granted between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2023. As State Aid approval will be required to introduce this scheme, the scheme is subject to a Ministerial Order.

Contact our Tax Department if you have any questions about KEEP share options or other employee share scheme matters.