Limitations on Cash Reimbursements for Transit Benefits Apply to Retroactive Increase in Transit Limits

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March 2, 2016

In a technical advice memorandum (PMTA 2016-01), the IRS Office of Chief Counsel stated that a retroactive increase in transit benefits paid in a cash lump sum is only excludable to the extent a transit pass or voucher is unavailable.  This ruling clarifies that these retroactive increases are subject to the same rules as other transit benefits.  This issue arises from Congress’s decision to increase the amount of transit benefits excludable from income in 2012, 2014, and 2015 (e.g., the limit in 2015 was increased from $130/month to $250/month), which has led employers to inquire about the tax treatment of lump sum payments made to compensate employees for transit payments made by the employees in those years that exceeded the limits in place at the time.  The IRS states that it will deem such lump sum payments income and subject to withholding and reporting if transit passes or vouchers are “readily available.”

If transit passes or vouchers are not “readily available,” employers may provide cash reimbursements, so long as employees incur and substantiate their expenses pursuant to an accountable plan.  Accordingly, most employers are unable to allow employees to take advantage of the retroactive increase.  If an employer allowed employees to exceed the pre-tax limit and purchase transit passes with after-tax dollars (or provided the employees with transit passes and imputed taxable income for amounts in excess of the pre-tax limit), it could provide amended Forms W-2 and file Forms 941-X removing the after-tax amounts from wages (for both FITW and FICA purposes).  However, given that the difference for each employee is only $1450 per year, some employees may not wish to file amended income tax returns to recover any excess tax paid.  In addition, the cost savings for employers may not be sufficient to justify the expense of preparing the amended returns.