The Latest on Payroll Tax Deferral

If you have employees, you must withhold their 6.2 percent share of the Social Security tax from their wages up to an annual wage ceiling ($137,700 for 2020). You must pay the money to the IRS along with your matching 6.2 percent employer share of the tax.

But under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, as you likely know, employers are allowed to defer paying their 6.2 percent share of the Social Security tax on wages paid to employees through the end of 2020. Fifty percent of these deferred taxes will have to be paid during 2021 and the remainder in 2022.

Both the Trump administration and the IRS have issued orders permitting employers to defer withholding and paying the employee portion of the Social Security tax for a limited time. But the executive order on employee deferral is much more limited in scope than the CARES Act employer deferral, and it’s beset with practical problems for employers.

Which Taxes Can Be Deferred?

The deferral applies only to the employee portion of the Social Security tax due on wages paid from September 1, 2020, through December 31, 2020. No other payroll taxes can be deferred.

Which Employees Qualify for the Deferral?

Only employees who earn less than $4,000 biweekly qualify for the deferral. Employees who are not paid on a biweekly basis qualify if their pay is equivalent to less than $4,000 biweekly. This would include employees who are paid less than

  • $2,000 weekly,
  • $4,333 semimonthly, or
  • $8,666.67 monthly.

Each pay period is tested separately. An employee who earns too much during one pay period can still qualify for the deferral if he or she earns less than the ceiling amount in a later pay period.

Is the Deferral Mandatory?

IRS officials have stated that the deferral is not mandatory. Employers are not obligated to offer the deferral to their employees. This is so even if an employee requests it.

What Happens When the Deferral Period Ends?

The employee Social Security tax deferral ends on December 31, 2020. IRS guidance provides that the deferred taxes must then be paid “ratably” from wages paid from January 1, 2021, through April 30, 2021. Employers must withhold and pay the deferred taxes from employee wages paid during this period.

Thus, from January 1, 2021, through April 30, 2021, most employees will have to pay a 12.4 percent Social Security tax instead of the normal 6.2 percent. This amounts to a 6.2 percent pay cut for affected employees for four months.

What If Employees Quit or Get Fired?

If an employee quits or is fired during the four-month repayment period, there may not be enough wages paid to cover the deferred Social Security taxes. The IRS says that in this event employers can “make arrangements to otherwise collect” the deferred taxes. What form such “arrangements” could take is unclear.

Interest, penalties, and additions to taxes will begin to accrue on any unpaid deferred Social Security taxes starting May 1, 2021. Thus, if you (the employer) fail to remit the deferred monies because employees were not employed during the collection period, you are on the hook.

Due to the uncertainty involved, many employers have reportedly elected not to participate in the employee Social Security tax deferral.

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