If you have worked for a tech startup, you have probably earned incentive stock options (ISOs) as part of your compensation. ISOs are notoriously difficult to understand, let alone to strategize. In most cases, it frankly doesn’t matter, because most startups will not become spectacularly successful, and therefore, the options will never become a dominant part of the money you made during your stint. But, if you are lucky enough to hitch a ride on a unicorn 🦄, it can get very complicated, indeed.
The tax treatment of ISOs encourages employees to take financial risks, in return for potential tax advantages. If there were no tax advantages to be gained, it would be advantageous in all cases to exercise options as late as possible—either just before expiration or when you want to sell the stock—because you would have maximal certainty of the value of the shares. But because there are holding periods for tax advantages and triggers for taxable events, there is pressure to exercise earlier. This means locking up cash for years, before knowing when, or even if, the shares can be sold for profit.
The one thing you must understand about ISOs is the concept of a qualifying disposition. I’m going to first explain what that means, and then present a brief case study from my own situation.Continue reading “Employee Equity: Understanding “qualifying disposition” is a must”