Sunday, July 15, 2012

The IRS refers to it as the “responsible person” penalty.  It applies to failure to remit withheld federal payroll taxes.  You can think of federal withholding taxes as having five pieces, as follows:
·         Federal income tax withheld
·         Social security withheld
·         Medicare withheld
·         Employer match of social security
·         Employer match of Medicare

Here is the concept: the IRS considers the first three to be the employees’ money, which the employer holds in trust. When the employer fails to remit these, it is not only tax noncompliance but also theft. The IRS is very harsh on this issue and will impose one of its harshest penalties: the “responsible person” penalty. This penalty is 100%. Yes, you read that correctly.
You never want to be “responsible” for this purpose. The IRS can chase to ground anyone it considers responsible and assess the penalty. It doesn’t matter whether you own the company, or are an officer, or even still work there. 
Think about the math for a moment. The company falls behind on its payroll taxes. The IRS will proceed against the company for the taxes. If it then chooses to assess penalties, it does so against the responsible person. That penalty is 100%. The company pays. The responsible person pays. The IRS is paid twice.
Let’ go over a quick example: Let’s say that the amounts are as follows:
·         Federal income tax                 $1,800
·         Social security withheld         $   336
·         Medicare withheld                 $   116
·         Employer social security        $   496
·         Employer Medicare                $   116
When the IRS goes against the company, it will want a check for $2,864 ($1,800 + 336 + 116 + 496 + 116).
NOTE: The employer social security is higher than the employee withholding because of the 2-point reduction in employee social security for 2012.  The employer percentage remained at 6.2% whereas the employee share was reduced to 4.2%.  This was part of the effort to stimulate (or at least not de-stimulate) the economy. It is also slated to expire at the end of 2012.
If the IRS assesses the responsible person, that penalty will be $2,252 ($ 1,800 + 336 + 116). Notice that the employer share doesn’t count for purposes of this penalty. Small consolation.
There are two major tests that the IRS will consider to determine if someone will be charged with the “responsible person” penalty:
(1)   Did the person have a responsibility to collect, account for and pay the trust fund taxes; and
(2)   Did the person willfully fail to perform this duty?
Let’s break down the first test. What if you are a payroll manager, responsible for running payroll and correctly accounting for withholding taxes? Are you responsible? No, not by itself, because you do not have authority to pay bills and write checks. What if you are the treasurer, with authority to write checks? Are you responsible? You will have the IRS’ attention, but the technical answer is no, not by itself. In our next blog we will discuss a taxpayer who wrote over 1,800 checks but argued that he was not a responsible person. The IRS did not believe him, of course, so off they went to court.
On to the second test. We are presently representing a responsible person client on the issue of willfulness. Willful means that one voluntarily and intentionally paid, or continued to pay, other creditors while knowing that the company failed to pay over withheld funds to the government. The IRS in the past has argued that payments to a creditor – mind you, any payments to any creditor – could be sufficient to show willfulness.
Fortunately the courts have slowed down the IRS. Let’s say the check writer was unaware of the lapsed payroll deposits, for example. How? One way is lack of financial sophistication. What if the bookkeeper “took care of it,” and the bookkeeper suddenly took ill, became disabled or left town? The business owner or manager could well need time to ramp-up, whether that means payroll, using QuickBooks or any other duty previously performed by the bookkeeper. Can one say there is “willful” intent while the owner or manager is struggling through the learning curve? Let’s swing the other way and say the check writer was financially sophisticated. What is your opinion if told that the check writer wrote checks only infrequently, and that when the primary signor was on vacation or otherwise unavailable? What if the check writer was unaware of any payroll problems? What if the check writer is authorized pay to vendor payables but excluded from any payroll responsibilities? What if the check writer was intimidated by his/her boss?
This area is of concern because of the poor economy in the last several years. There is great temptation to consider payroll taxes as yet another funding source, reasoning that the IRS can wait like any other creditor. That is not true. The IRS is not just any other creditor. The IRS can assess and collect tax for 10 years past the assessment date, and longer than that if it reduces the assessment to a judgment. And do not assume this is automatically dischargeable in bankruptcy court.  This is called “expensive money.”
Next blog: we will talk about Tarpoff and his responsible person penalty.

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