Which Tax Year Should End-of-Year Employee Paychecks Be In?

employee paychecks
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You pay employees on January 4, 2020, for work done in the last week of December 2019 because that's your normal payday. Are these paycheck amounts taxable in the year of the work or the year of the paycheck? The tax year for a paycheck is important because it affects the taxable income for employees, as shown in employee gross pay on the W-2 forms for each year.

The paycheck date rules, even if the work was done and the pay was earned in a different year (but read the exception below). That's because the paycheck was available to the employees in January, but not in December.

The gross pay is taxable in 2020, not 2019. If you pay employees on the last day of December for this work, the paycheck date of December 31, 2019, and this would mean the pay is taxable income in 2019.

Why Is the Year of an Employee's Paycheck Important?

The year the paycheck is taxed affects the taxable income of the employee. If an employee had a big end-of-year bonus, for example, it could affect the employee's tax rate. In some years, there is an extra pay period, which can cause employees to receive what appears to be an "extra" paycheck.

 Give employees to change their W-4 form for bonuses or that extra end-of-year paycheck. For example, the employee can change withholding for the bonus check and change back to regular withholding for the next regular payroll.

The issue comes up when a pay period doesn't end on the last day of the year. If the pay period ends before the end of the year, there are few days in the first year that will be paid in the next year. If the pay period ends after the end of the year, there are a few extra days in the next year's pay.

Direct Deposits

If you make paychecks available to employees before the end of the year—through direct deposit, for example—the pay must be considered to be received (and taxable) in that year, even if the direct deposit check includes income for the following year.

The IRS says that income is constructively received when it's credited to an account or made available without restriction. Constructive receipt is an accounting term that refers to when income is considered to be in the possession of someone and when it is available to be spent. Employees must report income in the year it was received or made available without restriction. 

Post-Dated Checks and Constructive Receipt

In general, when a person receives a payment by mail, it could be considered that the person has constructive receipt of the funds. But that's not always true. A check might be post-dated.

A post-dated check is a check that has a future date on it. If you receive a check in 2020 that is dated 2021, you can't cash it until the next year. Just because you have the check in your hand, because it's dated in the next year—and not cashable until then—the check would be included in the next year's taxes.

How Does This Rule Affect Employee W-2 Forms?

W-2 forms are the forms you give employees in January to provide information on their pay and amounts withheld for federal income taxes and FICA taxes (social security and Medicare).

The last paycheck dated in December is included in that year's W-2 earnings. The first paycheck in January is included in the new year's W-2 earnings.

After you prepare those W-2 forms, they must be distributed to employees and filed with the Social Security Administration. Here are the dates to remember: W-2 forms must be given to employees by the end of January, for the prior year's wages. You must also file W-2 forms with the Social Security Administration by January 31 (not February 28, as in previous years. If you are using payroll accounting software, the software should take care of the tax issue for the employee W-2s.

How Do I Handle This Issue?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don't get ahead of yourself and don't try to over-think it. Hand out paychecks when they are typically distributed. If you are trying to calculate payroll taxes yourself, it might be wise to consider getting payroll software.
  2. Inform employees. Let employees know which tax year their last paycheck will be in. It's always better to warn employees than have them find out later and be upset.
  3. You can get help from your CPA or other tax professional. If you are REALLY confused, you might want to consider getting a payroll service to help with these kinds of issues.

Article Sources

  1. IRS. "Publication 538 Accounting Periods and Methods." Constructive receipt. Page 8. Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.