IRS Issues Guidance on Withholding Changes Made by Tax Reform

In the wake of changes made by the tax reform law (commonly referred to as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act) to an employer’s withholding obligations, the IRS is working to update its forms and procedures to reflect those changes.  Yesterday, the IRS issued Notice 2018-14 to communicate its progress and provide transition relief in areas that it has not finished updating to reflect the changes in law, including Forms W-4 and application of the withholding rules personal exemptions.

Expiration of Exempt Forms W-4

Employees furnish Form W-4 to employers to claim withholding allowances, or to claim an exemption from income tax withholding.  Forms W-4 that claim an exemption from withholding expire the following year on February 15.  Accordingly, Forms W-4 furnished for 2017 claiming an exemption from withholding on Line 7 will generally expire on February 15, 2018.  In recognition of the fact that a 2018 Form W-4 will likely not be released prior to the expiration of those forms, Notice 2018-14 extends the validity period of 2017 Forms W-4 to February 28, 2018.  Accordingly, employers need not receive a new Form W-4 before February 15, 2017, for employees who have claimed an exemption from withholding nor must they begin withholding on those employees after that date.

Notice 2018-14 also provides specific instructions for how employees should claim an exemption in 2018 using the 2017 Form W-4 (such as striking through 2017 on Line 7 and entering 2018, entering “Exempt 2018” on Line 7, or a substantially similar method) until 30 days after the 2018 Form W-4 is released.  In all cases, the Form W-4 claiming an exemption from withholding must be signed in 2018 to be valid for 2018.  Employees who claim an exemption from withholding for 2018 on a Form 2017 Form W-4 are not required to submit a new Form W-4 for 2018 after the 2018 Form W-4 is released.

Changes in Withholding Allowances

Under the current law, employees must furnish a new Form W-4 to their employers within 10 days of a change in status that reduces the number of withholding allowances to which they are entitled (such as the loss of itemized deductions).  Notice 2018-14 provides that an employee is not required to furnish his or her employer a new Form W-4 reflecting the reduced number of allowances until 30 days after the 2018 Form W-4 is released.

Flat Rate Withholding

As reflected in the revised Notice 1036 (discussed here), employers are not required to implement the changes to the flat withholding rate available for supplemental wages until February 15, 2018, a delay from the otherwise-applicable January 1 effective date for the new rate.  Under the Act, the withholding rates were reduced from 25% and 39.6% to 22% and 37%, respectively.  If an employer withheld at a higher rate for optional flat-rate withholding (25%) on or after January 1, but before February 15, the employer may refund the excess withholding to the employee using the standard rules related to corrections of excess federal income tax withholding, but is not required to do so.  (Notice 2018-14 is silent on correction of overwithholding based on the higher rate for mandatory flat-rate withholding (39.6%), but presumably similar refunds could be made.)

The new 22% rate optional flat-rate withholding on supplemental wages of less than $1 million increases the likelihood that higher-income employees may be significantly underwithheld on bonus and other compensation.  IRS guidance prohibits employers from withholding at any other rate (higher or lower) than the specified rate if the flat-rate method is used.  As a practical matter, it is unclear what enforcement measures, if any, the IRS could take if an employer permitted employees to elect a rate in excess of 22% to avoid underwithholding and the need for estimated tax payments.  In years past, IRS personnel have informally expressed concern that some individuals may attempt to “game the system” by requesting increased rates of flat rate withholding, but this concern seems more hollow when the rate of optional flat withholding – particularly for higher income workers – seems to fall well below applicable income tax rates.

Withholding on Periodic Payments in the Absence of Form W-4P

Prior to amendment by the Act, withholding at the rate applicable to a married individual claiming three withholding allowances was required with respect to periodic payments made under an annuity, IRA, or qualified plan subject to withholding under Code section 3405 if the payee did not provide a Form W-4P.  The Act amended that provision to require withholding at a rate to be determined by the Secretary of the Treasury.  Due to the implementation timeline for changes under the Act, Notice 2018-14 instructs employers to impose withholding in 2018 on such payments at the same rate previously applicable (married individual claiming three withholding allowances).

For additional guidance on these requirements, employers should consult the 2018 IRS Publication 15, which was also released yesterday and is consistent with the relief provided in Notice 2018-14.

Employer Withholding Guidance Delayed Pending Tax Reform

The increasingly likely prospect of a tax reform bill being enacted by the end of the year has prompted the IRS to delay annual withholding guidance, according to Scott Mezistrano of the IRS Wage and Investment Division’s Industry Stakeholder Engagement and Strategy Office.  It is expected that any tax reform bill would change tax rates, increase the standard deduction, and eliminate personal exemptions.  These changes will necessitate changes in withholding rates and withholding tables to ensure that employers withhold the appropriate amount of tax from employees’ wages.  Speaking on an IRS payroll industry monthly conference call on December 7, Mezistrano said that the guidance that will be delayed includes Form W‑4 (Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate), the withholding tables, Publication 15‑A (Employer’s Supplemental Tax Guide), and Publication 15‑B (Employer’s Tax Guide to Fringe Benefits).  Employers will likely be required to continue using the 2017 withholding tables and guidance into 2018, even if the tax reform legislation were to be signed into law before year end and the new tax rates were to take effect on January 1, 2018.  Employers would also be provided a transition period to implement the new IRS withholding guidance, according to Mezistrano.

Currently, a conference committee with selected lawmakers from both chambers is negotiating a final bill to reconcile the two versions of the GOP tax reform bill passed in the Senate (discussed here, here, and here) and in the House (discussed in an earlier series of posts).  A final negotiated bill would need to pass both chambers before the President can sign it into law.  We will continue to monitor tax reform legislation and related IRS guidance for further developments.

New FATCA FAQs Address Date of Birth and Foreign TIN Requirements for Withholding Certificates

April 7, 2017 by  
Filed under FATCA

Yesterday, the IRS added three new FAQs to its list of frequently asked questions on compliance with the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (“FATCA”).  The questions address the need for withholding agents to obtain foreign TINs or dates of birth for nonresident alien or foreign entity on beneficial owner withholding certificates, e.g., Forms W-8BEN and W-8BEN-E.  The FAQs address the requirement under temporary regulations published in the Federal Register on January 6, 2017, that a beneficial owner withholding certificate contains a foreign TIN and, in the case of an individual, a date of birth in order to be considered valid.

FAQ #20 clarifies when a withholding agent must collect a foreign TIN or date of birth on a beneficial owner withholding certificate.  In general, withholding agents must obtain a foreign TIN if either (1) the foreign person is claiming a reduced rate of withholding under an income tax treaty and the foreign person does not provide a U.S. TIN and a TIN is required to make a treaty claim or (2) the foreign person is an account holder of a financial account maintained at a U.S. office or branch of the withholding agent and the withholding agent is a financial institution.  However, a withholding certificate that does not contain a foreign TIN may still be treated as valid with respect to payments made in 2017 in the absence of actual knowledge on the part of the withholding agent that the individual has a foreign TIN.  For payments made on or after January 1, 2018, a beneficial owner withholding certificate that does not contain a foreign TIN will be invalid unless the beneficial owner provides a reasonable explanation for its absence, such as that the country of residence does not issue TINs.

Consistent with the language of the temporary regulations, FAQ #21 clarifies that a withholding agent may treat a beneficial owner withholding certificate provided by an individual after January 1, 2017, as valid even if it does not contain a date of birth if the withholding agent otherwise has the individual’s date of birth in its records.

Finally, FAQ #22 clarifies that if a beneficial owner provides an otherwise valid withholding certificate that fails to include its foreign TIN, the beneficial owner may provide the foreign TIN to the withholding agent in a written statement (that may be an email) from the beneficial owner that includes the foreign TIN and a statement indicating that the foreign TIN is to be associated with the beneficial owner withholding certificate previously provided.  If the beneficial owner does not have a foreign TIN, the beneficial owner may provide the reasonable explanation required after January 1, 2018, in a similar written statement.

While helpful, the FAQs continue a growing trend toward subregulatory guidance from the IRS.  Because the guidance does not require the same level of review as more formal guidance, it can be issued more quickly.  However, informal guidance, such as FAQs, can be difficult to rely on because it may disappear or change without notice and typically is not binding on the IRS.