I've been reading that under 409a regulations, if non-qualified stock options are issued below fair market value, there are immediate tax implications and a 20% penalty. I've been working part-time for a startup and am being issued non-qualified options but have been told that there won't be a valuation of the company until the first round of seed investment is completed in a couple months.
So I'm wondering what happens in this situation and if this will cause issues? I read in another question (OK to issue options before the first financing round? ) that early on the fair market value is close to zero but isn't it important to get a valuation? And what happens if they don't have one at the time options are issued?
So, first of all, you can avoid 409A by getting restricted stock instead of options. Yes, you have to pay out a little bit of cash (a very little bit), but then valuation issues go away.
In general, though, for early stage companies, the board usually says "This is what we think the value is" -- it's a nominal amount, because the company has nominal assets. A valuation at that point would be almost complete guesswork.
What normally happens in this situation is that the company doesn't issue the options until the valuation is done. At our company we've had to delay issuing options to new employees, sometimes by as much as 6 months, while we finish financing rounds and get 409a valuations in place. We often accelerate the vesting in these cases to compensate.