More small businesses get into trouble with the IRS over payroll taxes than any other type of tax. Payroll taxes are a huge source of government revenue and the IRS takes them very seriously. It is actively looking for businesses that have fallen behind in their payroll taxes or aren’t depositing them. When the IRS finds a noncompliant business, it hits hard with penalties.
Your most important responsibility is depositing all of your payroll taxes on time. Before you do that, however, you have to know:
- Who are your taxable workers?
- What payroll taxes apply?
- What compensation is taxable?
- When are your payroll taxes due?
- What payroll and other returns should you file?
The first step is to determine who is a taxable worker. If you hire only independent contractors, they, and not you, are responsible for paying federal payroll taxes.
It’s more likely that you hire employees. In that case, you are responsible for withholding federal income tax and Social Security and Medicare taxes. You are also responsible for federal unemployment (FUTA) taxes along with any state taxes.
There are some exceptions to who is an employee for payroll taxes but they are few. The most common are real estate agents and direct sellers.
If you have any questions about the status of your workers, give our office a call. Misclassifying workers is a common mistake. If you treat an employee as an independent contractor, and your treatment is wrong, you will be liable for federal income tax and Social Security and Medicare taxes. They add up very quickly.
What taxes apply
Once you’ve determined that your workers are taxable employees, you have to determine what federal payroll taxes apply. Most employers must withhold federal income tax and Social Security and Medicare taxes. You are also liable for federal unemployment taxes (FUTA) but these are not withheld from an employee’s pay. Only you pay FUTA taxes.
You have to withhold at the correct rate. Form W-4, which your employee fills out, tells you how much federal income tax to withhold for an employee. The Social Security, Medicare and FUTA tax rates are set by statute.
Failing to withhold at the correct rate is a surprisingly common mistake. Sometimes, an employee completes a new W-4 but the employer forgets to adjust his or her withholding. It’s a good idea to review the W-4s of all your employees and make sure they are current.
Almost every type of compensation, and not just wages, is taxable. The IRS wants its share of tips, bonuses, employee stock options, severance pay, and many other forms of compensation. This includes non-cash or in-kind compensation.
There are exceptions. Health insurance plans generally are not subject to federal payroll taxes. Per diem payments and other allowances, if they do not exceed rates set by the government, are generally not taxable as wages. Some fringe benefits are not taxable, such as employee discounts, an occasional taxi ride when an employee must work overtime and inexpensive holiday gifts.
Determining what compensation is taxable and what is not is often difficult. The complex tax rules are easy to misinterpret and you may be failing to withhold taxes on taxable compensation. It’s a mistake that can be avoided with our help.
Most small employers deposit payroll taxes monthly. Large and mid-size businesses make semi-weekly deposits. Very small employers may make annual deposits.
Your deposit schedule is based on the total tax liability that you reported during a four-quarter “lookback” period. The lookback period begins July 1 and ends June 30. If you reported $50,000 or less of taxes for the lookback period, you make monthly deposits. If you reported more than $50,000, you make semi-weekly deposits.
Determining the lookback period is tricky. If the IRS finds that your lookback period is wrong, you could be heavily penalized for not making timely deposits. Your deposit schedule can also change and you have to know what can trigger a change.
If you withhold federal payroll taxes, you must file Form 941 quarterly. Of course, there are exceptions. The most important one is for very small employers. They file their returns annually instead of quarterly.
The IRS encourages employers to file Form 941 electronically. Depending on how large your business is, you may have no choice but to file electronically. A common mistake is filing more than one Form 941 quarterly. This only causes unnecessary delays.
Penalties are costly
Often, a small business just doesn’t have the cash on hand to make a timely deposit. The owner thinks that he or she will double-up the next time and make things right. More often than not, that doesn’t happen and the unpaid liability snowballs.
The penalties for failing to withhold or deposit federal income tax and Social Security and Medicare taxes are severe and they can be personal. If your business cannot pay the unpaid taxes, the IRS will go after you personally.
You may be using a payroll agent to pay your taxes. Keep in mind that you are still liable for those taxes if your agent doesn’t pay them. Reliance on a payroll service, or anyone else, does not excuse your failure to pay.
Your payroll tax obligations also do not end with filing tax returns and depositing payments. You have reporting obligations to your employees and, in some cases, to your independent contractors.
Staying out of trouble with the IRS
Even if you believe you understand and are compliant with the federal payroll tax rules, give our office a call. The rules are riddled with exceptions that we haven’t even touched on in this brief article. We’ll take a look at your operations and make sure you are 100 percent compliant. It’s worth avoiding any costly mistakes down the road.