Biggest difference I that phantom tock is nothing more than deferred compensation that is aid to you in cash, therefore is always taxed as ordinary income when received no different than wages. The company gets a compensation deduction. You never have ownership in the business albeit your earnings are ownership-like given the value of the phantom stock will mirror real stock for valuation. Stock options allow the recipient to actually become an owner if option is exercised and "real" stock issued. Moreover, if the recipient makes an IRC Sec. 83(b) election at time the options are issued then any future appreciation in the stock will be taxed at the lower capital gain tax rate.
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You probably need an employment/business lawyer with experience in your industry up in Mountain View/Silicon Valley to review your agreement in its entirety. Both phantom stock and stock options are complex securities and have tax ramifications that need to be considered in conjunction with your overall tax picture. You seem to have prior experience in high level employment contracts in the industry and it is now time to have a ongoing CPA and lawyer on your team.
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I agree with Attorney Doland and will add the following:
Does the corporation already have a stock option plan? If not, then arguing for options may not succeed, because a tax-qualified stock option plan is relatively expensive for a small corporation to establish and administer.
Perhaps you can successfully argue for restricted stock, rather than phantom stock or options. Please see the post at the link below.
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Your reservations are well advised.
You should consider making your case for options for the following reasons: (i) phantom rights will never afford you voting rights and you don't get the employee stockholder protections under the California Corporations Code as an equity holder (your interest can be diluted w/o consent); and (ii) options can qualify for lower tax treatment (as ISOs) and allow your to avoid income tax if the grant and your dispositions qualify (you're taxed as a capital gain vs. income tax rate). Phantom stock rights are taxed as supplemental income (bonus income) and do not have the right to vote on key changes to the company, and the company can keep granting phantom stock rights until your interests are meaningless. Be careful.
The issue is whether the company has enough underlying authorized shares to grant you options. Many times phantom stock rights are granted when a company depletes its option pool. Sometimes you can force a re-organization of the company to re-create an option pool, some times you can't.
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