Hurricane Harvey Prompts IRS to Provide Tax Relief for Leave-Based Donation Programs

Post by
September 7, 2017

The IRS recently released Notice 2017-48, providing favorable tax relief for “leave-based donation programs” designed to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey.  Under these programs, employees may elect to forgo vacation, sick, or personal leave in exchange for payments that the employer makes to charitable organizations described under section 170(c).  Under this notice, payments employees elect to forgo do not constitute income or wages of the employees for federal income and employment tax purposes if the employer makes the payments, before January 1, 2019, to charitable organizations for the relief of victims of Hurricane Harvey.  The IRS will not assert that an opportunity to make this election results in employees’ constructive receipt of the payments.  Thus, the employer would not need to include the payments in Box 1, 3 (if applicable), or 5 of the Forms W-2 for employees electing to forgo their vacation, sick, or personal leave.

With respect to employer deductions, the IRS will not assert that an employer is permitted to deduct these cash payments exclusively under the rules of section 170, applicable to deductions for charitable contributions, rather than the rules of section 162.  Accordingly, the deduction will not be limited by the percentage limitation under section 170(b)(2)(A) or subject to the procedural requirements of section 170(a).  Thus, payments made to charitable organizations pursuant to leave-based donation programs are deductible to the extent the payments would be deductible under section 162 if paid to the employees (i.e., the payments would have constituted reasonable compensation and met certain other requirements).

The requirements of Notice 2017-48 are straightforward, but if an employer fails to comply, the general tax doctrines of assignment of income and constructive receipt would apply.  Under these doctrines, if an employee can choose between receiving compensation or assigning the right to that compensation to someone else, the employee has constructive receipt of the compensation even though he or she never actually receives it.  (These concepts also create difficulties for paid-time off programs under which employees can choose to use PTO or receive cash.)  Thus, without special tax relief, an employee who assigns the right to compensation to a charitable organization would be taxed on that compensation, and the employer would have corresponding income and employment tax withholding and reporting obligations.  Although the employee would be entitled to take an itemized deduction for charitable contributions in that amount, this below-the-line deduction only affects income taxes (and not FICA taxes), and would not fully offset the amount of the income for non-itemizers who claim the standard deduction ($6,300 for single filers in 2016).

The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey and the impending threat of Hurricane Irma, which is currently affecting islands in the Eastern Caribbean islands, have renewed interest in favorable charitable contribution tax rules that extend beyond the parameters of section 170.  Apart from Notice 2017-48, the IRS has also previously provided certain special tax treatment for disaster relief payments employers provide to their employees.  On August 30, the IRS provided for easier access to funds in qualified retirement plans in IRS Announcement 2017-11.  The rules generally permit plan sponsors to adopt amendments permitting plan loans and hardship withdrawals later than would otherwise be required to provide such options, waive the six-month suspension of contributions for hardship withdrawals, and allow the disbursement of hardship withdrawals and plan loans before certain procedural requirements are satisfied.  Although the relief provided in Announcement 2017-11 applies only to those affected by Hurricane Harvey (and Notice 2017-48 applies only to charitable contributions designed to aid such individuals), it is likely the IRS will provide similar relief to those affected by Hurricane Irma if it makes landfall in the United States, as appears likely at this time.

Employers looking to provide further relief to their employees have other long-standing options, as well.  For example, Notice 2006-59 provides favorable tax treatment similar to that provided under Notice 2017-48 for “leave-sharing plans” that permits employees to deposit leave in an employer-sponsored leave bank for use by other employees who have been harmed by a major disaster.  Additionally, section 139 permits individuals to exclude from gross income and wages any “qualified disaster relief payment” for reasonable and necessary personal, family, living, or funeral expenses, among others; and the payments may be made through company-sponsored private foundations (see our recent Client Alert on section 139 disaster relief payments).