Enterprise Management Incentive (EMI) options offer tax-favoured and flexible incentives for companies which meet the various qualifying criteria. They are intended to help smaller companies with growth potential to recruit and retain the best employees, and offer generous tax advantages to employees of those companies which qualify.
Which companies qualify?
There are a number of legal requirements which companies must satisfy in order for their share options to qualify as EMIs, including:
- The company must carry on a "qualifying trade". If the option is for a group of companies, at least one company in the group must carry on such a trade;
- The company (or group of companies) must not have gross assets exceeding £30million;
- The company whose shares are used may be listed or unlisted on a stock exchange, but it must be an independent company. This means that, in the case of a group of companies, the options must be over shares in the parent company to meet the EMI requirements;
- The company (or group of companies) must have fewer than 250 full-time equivalent employees at the time the share option is granted.
The shares used for EMI options can be subject to restrictions, but they must be ordinary shares which are "fully paid up" (for company law purposes) and not redeemable or convertible.
What is a "qualifying trade"?
Broadly speaking, a "qualifying trade" is one that is carried out with the intention of making a profit. Unless the company's business consists, to a substantial extent, of one of HMRC's listed "non-qualifying" activities, it will most likely be eligible. These non-qualifying activities include:
- dealing in land;
- financial trading;
- property development
Receiving royalties or licence fees is usually classed as a non-qualifying activity, unless the income is substantially generated from intellectual property belonging to the company or group of companies.
Companies can apply in advance to HMRC for an opinion as to whether a company or group of companies meets the EMI requirements. Companies with overseas activities may qualify to use EMI to recruit and retain UK staff, provided they have a "permanent establishment" in the UK.
250 employees restriction
The company must have fewer than 250 full-time equivalent employees. A full-time employee is one who works 35 hours a week or more, and the company must include fractions representing part-time employees. Non-executive directors, overseas employees and employees of "qualifying subsidiaries" in which the parent company owns a controlling stake, must also be counted.
Who can participate in EMIs?
In order to qualify, participating employees including executive directors must spend at least 25 hours per week or, if less, 75% of their working time, on the business of the company or group of companies.
Limits on grant of EMIs
There is a company limit of £3million on the total value of shares (as at the grant date) which may be available under EMI options at any given time. There is also an individual limit on the value of shares (as at the grant date) which any one employee may hold under the EMI option. This limit is currently £250,000.
Tax treatment of EMIs
EMIs offer generous tax advantages to both qualifying companies and participants, as follows:
- no income tax or National Insurance contributions (NICs) is payable on the grant of shares;
- normally no income tax or NICs will be payable when an employee exercises the share option, unless the market value of the shares at the time of exercise is lower than the market value of the shares on grant;
- capital gains tax (CGT) is payable on the sale of the option shares;
- entrepreneur's relief, which reduces the rate of capital gains tax to 10% on the first £10 million of lifetime gains will potentially be available on the disposal of shares acquired pursuant to an EMI option, if it is more than 12 months since the grant of this option;
- if the share option is exercised more than 90 days after a "disqualifying event", income tax (and, if appropriate, NICs) is payable on the increase in value of the shares between the date of the disqualifying event and the date of exercise
Disqualifying events include:
- the company ceasing to carry out a qualifying trade;
- the optionholder ceasing to be a qualifying employee;
- optionholders being granted an additional HMRC-approved company share option (CSOP) taking them over their individual (currently £250,000) EMI limit;
- the company being taken over;
- certain alterations to the company's share capital
In addition to these substantial tax advantages, the employer company may also be able to claim corporation tax relief on the option gain.
Share option requirements
Employees must be able to exercise EMI share options within 10 years. The option terms must be set out in a written agreement which must detail any restrictions on the shares.
It is recommended that unlisted companies establish the market value of the shares that will be put under option before EMI options are granted. The value can be formally agreed with HMRC, or the company can use its own valuation although it would then be open to HMRC to query this.
Although prior HRMC approval is not needed to grant EMI options, HMRC must be notified of any such grants within 92 days of the grant date using Form EMI 1 - available from the HMRC website.
HMRC has 12 months to make enquiries as to eligibility. If it does not make such enquiries, and all information provided is correct, then the share option is deemed to qualify.
Other arrangements available
If a company is too large to grant EMI options, it may still qualify to grant options under an HMRC-approved "company share option plan" (or CSOP). For more information, see our separate Out-Law guide.
If a company or the employee does not meet the qualifying criteria for either EMIs or CSOPs, it can grant non-tax approved share options which have no eligibility criteria and are very flexible, however will be subject to income tax (and, if appropriate, NICs) on exercise of the share options. Alternatively, the company may consider other arrangements, for example the Pinsent Masons' ExSOP™, which may offer a more favourable tax treatment than "unapproved" options.
For companies and employees who meet the qualifying conditions, EMIs are a flexible and tax-favoured share incentive arrangement.