Breaking News: IRS issues guidance on Trump’s payroll tax deferral order

On Friday, August 28, 2020, the IRS and Treasury issued guidance implementing President Trump’s order to defer collection of some payroll taxes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Phillips Murrah attorney Jessica Cory

Jessica N. Cory represents businesses and individuals in a wide range of transactional matters, with an emphasis on tax planning.

On August 8, 2020, President Trump issued a Presidential Memoranda, commonly known as an Executive Order (the “Order”), to defer the withholding, deposit, and payment of certain payroll taxes on wages paid from September 1, 2020 through the end of the calendar year.   The Order applies to any employee whose pretax compensation is less than $4,000 per biweekly pay period (or $104,000 per year, on an annualized basis).  The Order permits the employers of these eligible employees to temporarily suspend the 6.2% Social Security tax typically withheld from employees’ paychecks.

The Order has raised a number of questions for employers and payroll companies considering whether to implement the deferral.  For example, the National Payroll Reporting Consortium (“NPRC”) recently raised concerns about whether sufficient time is available to implement a deferral option by September 1, given the substantial programming changes that such an option would require. Because payroll systems are typically designed to use a single Social Security tax rate for the full year, for all employees, it may be challenging to change a reporting system to apply a different tax rate for part of the year, beginning mid-quarter, for only certain employees of certain employers.

In addition to practical challenges relating to implementation, the Order also raises liability concerns for both employees and employers, who are dually liable for unpaid payroll taxes under the Internal Revenue Code. Under Code Section 7508A, the Secretary of the Treasury can delay tax payments for up to a year during a presidentially-declared disaster, but no authority exists to authorize forgiveness of those deferred amounts. Accordingly, employees, employers, or both could be held liable for any deferred payroll taxes after the deferral period ends. This could represent a substantial burden. For example, for an employee earning $50,000 per year, the deferral would allow the employee to take home an additional $119 per paycheck during the deferral period. But, without Congressional action to authorize forgiveness of the deferred taxes, that employee—or his or her employer—would be facing a $1,073 tax liability in January.

Based on guidance released today from the Treasury Department in Notice 2020-65, employers who opt into the deferral program will be required to collect the deferred taxes ratably from their employees during a four month repayment period beginning on January 1, 2021, through increased withholding. Accordingly, during the repayment period, employers will be required to withhold 12.4% from their employees’ paychecks, rather than the normal 6.2%, to repay the payroll tax liability accumulated from September to December. The guidance does not indicate how an employer should collect the deferred taxes from an employee who terminates his or her employment prior to the end of the repayment period but indicates that employers may make other “arrangements … to collect the total [deferred tax amount] from the employee,” if necessary.

The guidance offered on Friday indicates that the Treasury intends to put the onus of repayment on the employer, with the employer potentially subject to interest, penalties, and additions to tax beginning on May 1, 2021, if the employer is unable to collect the accrued tax liability from its employees. Accordingly, given the voluntary nature of the deferral, the potential liability involved, and the costs and complexity associated with upgrading their payroll systems to accommodate the deferral, employers have a strong incentive to opt out and continue withholding for now.

To the extent an employer does want to participate in the tax deferral, the employer should consider establishing a procedure to allow eligible employees to opt in to the deferral. This procedure should require any employee opting in to provide the employer with a written and signed statement that:

  1. Acknowledges that any deferred taxes will come due in 2021.
  2. Authorizes the employer to withhold tax at a double rate, consistent with the guidance provided in Treasury Notice 2020-65, for those pay periods falling in the four-month repayment period.
  3. Agrees that in the event the employee’s employment is terminated prior to the end of the repayment period, for any reason, the employer can set off any remaining amount owed to the employee by the amount of outstanding deferred taxes, that the employee will be liable for any remaining amount, and the employee will reimburse the employer for any associated liability, including penalties and interest, as necessary.

Employers who decide to establish such an opt-in procedure should consult with counsel to ensure compliance with state labor laws.


For more information on this alert and its impact on your business, please call 405.552.2472 or email me.

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