A Proactive Step That Adds Up
By Joe Lemay, CPA
I’m sure you’ve heard by now, but there were quite a few changes to the tax law in 2018. When the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was signed into law into December 2017, it took an axe to many itemized deductions on your personal return.
Of these, the deduction for unreimbursed employee business expenses, such as business travel or car expenses, tolls, and parking, is one of significant note. However, despite the lost deduction, there may be an alternative solution that can be a win-win for employers and employees.
Prior to the TCJA, unreimbursed employee business expenses were deductible as a ‘miscellaneous’ deduction on an individual’s return. All miscellaneous deductions were deductible in excess of 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI).
For example, if your AGI was $100,000 in 2017, you could claim only a deduction for the amount of your total miscellaneous expenses that exceeded $2,000. If you had a total of $3,200 of unreimbursed employee expenses, you would have been able to deduct $1,200 on your personal return in 2017. Now fast-forward to 2018, and the $3,200 of unreimbursed employee expenses are not deductible at all on the individual return.
You may be thinking the changes noted above sound unfair. However, a company can establish an ‘accountable plan,’ which may serve to remedy this change. An accountable plan is a reimbursement or other expense-allowance arrangement between an employer and employee, which reimburses employees for business expenses that are not recorded as income to the employee and are generally deductible by the employer as business expenses.
If the accountable plan is followed properly, the company reimburses an employee for substantiated business expenses, and then, in turn, the company deducts those business expenses on its income-tax return. The reimbursements are excluded from the employee’s gross income, not reported as wages or other compensation on the employee’s W-2, and are also exempt from federal income-tax withholding and employment taxes.
The company can negotiate with the employee to reduce the employee’s wages in exchange for the reimbursement, thereby saving the company payroll taxes, which includes Social Security tax of 6.2% on gross wages, capped at $132,900 (for 2018) and Medicare tax of 1.45%. By executing this transaction appropriately, the employee receives full reimbursement for business expenses, while seeing no change in their overall income, and the company benefits by saving on payroll taxes.
For example, Johnson Inc. has a sales team, which includes its ace salesman, Dave. During 2017, Dave earned $105,000 in base compensation and had $7,000 of unreimbursed business expenses. Assuming Dave’s base compensation of $105,000 is also his adjusted gross income, Dave would have been able to deduct $4,900 of his unreimbursed business expenses on his personal tax return in 2017. The remaining $2,100 of unreimbursed business expenses is a lost deduction.
Now let’s assume Johnson Inc. establishes and properly follows an accountable plan in 2018. During 2018, Dave earns the same $105,000 reduced by the elective expense allowance of $7,000 to a new taxable base of $98,000. Under the accountable plan, Dave is reimbursed in full for his business expenses; therefore, his net income, subsequent to reimbursements, remains the same as 2017 at $98,000. However, in this scenario, the company saves Social Security and Medicare tax in the amount of $535 (7.65% combined tax rate multiplied by $7,000 of reduced wages). While this savings may not seem like a lot, imagine a sales team of 25 employees; that is a potential savings of $13,375. Think about what you could do with that savings as a business owner.
How to Establish an Accountable Plan
The following criteria must be met for the plan to be accountable:
The accountable plan must prove the business connection for the reimbursements and/or allowances. The typical allowable deductions are travel, supplies, local transportation, meals incurred while away on business, and lodging.
The accountable plan must also have adequate support and records (such as itemized receipts) that substantiate the expense’s amount and purpose. The substantiation should be examined and approved by a manager or supervisor. The plan also requires the employee to return any advances back to the company which are not business expenses. Excess advances must be returned to the company within a reasonable period after the expense is paid or incurred. If excess advances to employees are pocketed by the employee, the excess advances are subject to federal income-tax withholdings and employment taxes.
The business-connection requirement is satisfied if a plan only reimburses employees when a deductible business expense has been incurred in connection with performing services for the company and the reimbursement is not in lieu of wages that the employees would otherwise receive. The company cannot simply shift taxable wages to the employee to non-taxable reimbursements without adequately proving the business connection.
There is no specific IRS form used to adopt an accountable plan, nor does the tax law require an accountable plan to be in writing; however, it would behoove employers to write down a formal plan.
Costs and Benefits of an Accountable Plan
The benefits produced from an effective accountable plan are clear. The employee is reimbursed in full for business expenses, and the company can save on payroll taxes, a win all around for everyone. However, the costs of implementing an accountable plan must also be factored in.
The company must have an organized process for tracking employee reimbursements, maintaining appropriate support that substantiates the business connection of employee reimbursements and is timely with reimbursements and requests for payback from its employees.
Companies with highly functioning accounting and/or human-resource departments will not have an issue with meeting these tasks; however, companies with low-functioning accounting and human-resource departments could struggle with appropriately maintaining an accountable plan.
Utilizing an accountable plan is an overall win for employers and employees. But consistency must be maintained throughout the year in order to yield the benefits.