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IRS Issues Guidance on Deferral of Certain Employee Payroll Taxes

September 2, 2020
Tax Advisory

On Friday, August 28, the IRS issued Notice 2020-65, providing guidance about the deferral of certain employee payroll taxes under the President's Executive Memorandum issued earlier in August. As has become the norm in these uncertain times, the guidance must be considered fluid and subject to change without notice. The existing guidance leaves many questions unanswered so we will continue to monitor this issue.

What Is the Employee's Portion of the Payroll Taxes Subject to Deferral Under Executive Memorandum and Notice 2020-65?

In addition to income tax withholding, payroll taxes include Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes. FICA taxes include old-age, survivor and disability insurance (OASDI) (Social Security) and hospital insurance (Medicare). These payroll taxes apply at a rate of 15.3 percent for wages up to $137,700 for the 2020 calendar year. The obligation for the FICA taxes are equally divided between employers and employees at 7.65 percent, broken down as follows: 6.2 percent for Social Security and 1.45 percent for Medicare. Accordingly, for purposes of the Executive Memorandum and Notice 2020-65 the amount subject to deferral is 6.2 percent of the Social Security taxes as the employee's share.

What Is Known

  • Deferral of the employee's share of Social Security taxes appears to be voluntary by the employer based on the language in this notice, Code Section 7508A, and prior statements made by Secretary Mnuchin. Since the deferral is voluntary, the employer may forgo the deferral and timely withhold and pay over the required taxes.
  • The employer is the "Affected Taxpayer" under Notice 2020-65. Thus, an employee cannot require its employer to defer the taxes.
  • The option to defer applies to wages paid to an employee on a pay date during the period beginning September 1, 2020 and ending on December 31, 2020.
  • The option to defer only applies to employees earning less than $4,000 paid for a bi-weekly pay period.
  • The determination of whether the employee earns less than $4,000 per bi-weekly pay period is made on a pay period-by-pay period basis. Notice 2020-65
  • The employer must withhold and pay the deferred taxes under this notice ratably between January 1, 2021 and April 30, 2021 or interest, penalties, and additions to the tax will begin to accrue on May 1, 2021, with respect to any unpaid applicable taxes. Notice 2020-65
  • “If necessary, the Affected Taxpayer [Employer] may make arrangement to otherwise collect the total Applicable Taxes from the employee." Notice 2020-65. Implies the penalties will be assessed against Employer as the Affected Taxpayer as defined by the guidance.

What Is Not Known

  • What if the employee leaves the company?
  • What if employee doesn’t make enough money to pay the tax back?
  • It appears that the obligation to pay the deferred taxes remains with the employer in either situation above.

Absent further guidance or congressional action, the deferred taxes must be withheld from the employee's wages and paid over to the government between January 1, 2021 and April 30, 2021. Employers who are considering allowing employees to defer payment of taxes should consult counsel and develop a plan to implement before ceasing to make deductions. Considerations for the plan should include an employee communication plan developed to address employee payment obligations after the deferral period expires or if the employee becomes no longer employed by the employer. In addition, the plan should take into account whether employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement that triggers notice and bargaining obligations. Also, keep in mind that Michigan employers must have signed authorization from the employee to make deductions from wages. Employers should consider obtaining written authorization from qualifying employees who elect to defer that includes the plan to repay the deferred taxes and a backup in case the employee ceases to be employed before the taxes are paid.

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