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Paid-Time-off Plans: IRS Guidelines and Why They Matter

Are you spending enough time on your paid-time-off plan?
Many questions arise regarding paid-time-off (PTO) plans and the constructive receipt of income, which can cause payroll complications for employers and phantom income inclusion for employees. In order to avoid being subject to penalties for not withholding income and payroll taxes and having employees be subject to tax on cash they have not received, certain steps need be followed if an employer wants to properly allow employees to cash-out PTO.

What the IRS is looking for.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued a number of Private Letter Rulings (PLRs) that examine earned time cash-out programs. While such rulings don’t serve as precedent, it appears the IRS has come up with the following factors that it deems important in order to avoid constructive receipt in a PTO cash-out situation:

  1. Employees must make a written election before the end of December in the year prior to the year they will be earning and receiving the accrued earned time to be cashed-out.  This is an election to receive a cash payout of the earned time to be accrued in the following year.
  2. The election must be irrevocable.
  3. The payout can only happen once the employee has actually earned and accrued the earned time in the following year. Payouts are generally once or twice per year, but may happen more frequently.

The IRS appears to generally require that the earned time being paid out be substantially less than the accrued earned time owed to the employee. This is to ensure that the earned time program remains a bona fide sick or vacation pay plan and not a plan of deferred compensation. This particular requirement can get tricky and may be different in each employer’s case.

Why does it matter?

The danger of failing to follow IRS guidelines regarding earned time cash-outs is that the IRS could claim that the employees offered a choice to cash-out are in constructive receipt of their accrued earned time balances regardless of their choice. This would result in immediate taxation of all accrued amounts to the employees, even if they hadn’t received the cash. The employer would also be subject to penalties for not properly withholding federal and state taxes.

It is important to review your PTO plan to be sure there are no issues regarding constructive receipt and to make sure your payroll systems are correctly reporting income.

The IRS issued proposed regulations under Code Section 457 in June of 2016 regarding, in part, non-qualified deferred compensation plans of not-for-profit (NFP) organizations. Those regulations contain guidance regarding the cash-out of sick and vacation time and the possibility that certain cash-out provisions may create a plan of deferred compensation and not a bona fide sick leave or vacation leave plan. As noted above, such a determination would be disastrous as all amounts accrued would become immediately taxable. NFP organizations and their advisors should keep a close eye on the proposed Section 457 regulations to see how they develop in final form. Once the regulations are finalized, NFP organizations may need to make changes to their cash-out provisions.

Please note that the above information is general in nature and is not meant to provide guidance on any particular case. If you have any questions about your PTO plan, please contact Roger Prince or Bill Enck.

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