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5 Things You May Not Know About IRS Form 990


With over 300 pages of instructions and 300 possible questions to answer, the IRS Form 990, Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax is a complex and extensive form. It is filed annually by most exempt organizations, including charities. Here are five things you may not know or may have forgotten about Form 990:   

  1. It is a misnomer to call Form 990 an “income tax return.” There is no income tax calculation in the core Form 990 or within any of the accompanying schedules. The fact that it is not an income tax return becomes very important when attempting to apply the Internal Revenue Code to the filing of Form 990. Generally, where the Internal Revenue Code and the related regulations only reference an “income tax return,” the code or regulation in question will not normally apply to Form 990. It is very important, however, to remember that organizations subject to unrelated business income taxes (UBIT) file a separate Form 990-T, Exempt Organization Business Income Tax Return, which can be subject to the Internal Revenue Code and the regulations related to the filing of an income tax return.
  1. There are 16 possible schedules that can be attached to the core Form 990. These schedules run the gamut from Schedule A, which is a required attachment for all Section 501(c)(3) organizations, to Schedule R that reports related entities, certain transactions with related entities, as well as certain unrelated partnerships. There is a schedule for foreign activities as well as for hospitals (Schedules F and H, respectively). There is, however, only one schedule that must be attached to every Form 990 that is filed: Schedule O, which is used to report required and supplemental information to the form.
  1. Some organizations get tripped up on reporting of lobbying expenses. Lobbying expenses are those amounts paid for activities intended to influence legislation, be it foreign, national, state or local. The IRS makes the distinction between direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying. Direct lobbying applies to instances in which organizations attempt to influence legislators. Grassroots lobbying is when the organization attempts to influence legislation through influencing the general public, such as urging supporters to contact legislators with a position on specific legislation. Lobbying expenditures are reported within the Statement of Functional Expenses on Line 11d on the core form. However, not all lobbying expenditures are to be reported on this line. Salaries paid to an employee of the filing where the employee is engaged in lobbying is not to be reported on 11d.  Section 501(c) organizations and Section 527 organizations are subject to limitations on lobbying and use Schedule C to furnish additional information.
  1. Your organization is being watched. Form 990 is heavily scrutinized, not only by the IRS, but also by state regulatory entities that use it to investigate exempt organizations operating in their states. In over 40 states, Form 990 is filed as part of the charitable fundraising registration process. In addition, the form is made widely available and used by charitable rating agencies. Readers have various motives for looking at the form, so it is important to look at it with an eye toward how all potential readers will react to the information being presented.
  1. In many instances, you cannot just check a box and be done. It is vital to read the instructions carefully. To give just one example, consider Section B of Part VII of Form 990, in which organizations report the five highest compensated independent contractors. The compensation to report is not limited to those contractors receiving a Form 1099 from the filing organization. You must report in Section B the top five that were paid more than $100,000 for services (not purchases of tangible personal property or rental or real property) rendered to the organization regardless of the need to prepare a Form 1099 for the service provider. The measurement date for the $100,000 is for the year ending within the year being filed. In other words, a June 30, 2016 fiscal year-end organization should look to the payments for services made during the year ending Dec. 31, 2015.

Do you want to learn more about the intricacies of Form 990 reporting? You can find reference materials for preparers and reviewers such as “Form 990 Red Flags” in the AICPA Not-for-Profit Section’s online resource library. Additionally, the AICPA is hosting a 2-hour, CPE-eligible webcast entitled “Form 990: Learn from the Experts” on Dec. 9 at 1 p.m. ET. Members of the AICPA Not-for-Profit Section can attend free of charge.

Bill Turco, CPA, Not-for-Profit Tax Director, RSM US LLP.  Bill oversees the firm’s D.C. Metro tax practice. He has over 20 years of experience working with exempt organizations, including national and international charities, schools, churches and membership organizations. He is co-author of the 8-hour tax compliance track of the AICPA’s Not-for-Profit Certificate I program.

Business people working image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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