Estimated income tax payments are a fact of life for most of us who run our own businesses.
Unlike those who are employed and receive paychecks where taxes are withheld by the employer, most business owners and the self-employed will be required to periodically send an amount called “estimated tax payments” to the IRS. You may also have to send estimated tax payments to your state taxing authority.
In other words, most small business owners must pay estimated taxes quarterly and not wait until April 15 or when other tax payers file their returns. Those quarterly installments are for the amount we “estimate” we will owe. If we do not send in estimated tax payments, we could end up paying hefty penalties, which are essentially interest for your overdue quarterly payments.
If you are a small business owner, be sure to take the tax calendar into account when developing a cash flow budget for your business.
To learn more, Small Business Trends spoke with Michael Hanley, Managing Partner of the Smithtown, N.Y. CPA Firm Merl & Hanley, LLP . Hanley is also the author of three small business books including Effective Tax Planning for the MicroBusiness, Choosing the Right Structure for Your Business, and Why You Should Incorporate Your Real Estate Business.
Estimated Tax Payment Calendar
For Federal Income Tax purposes, estimated tax payments are due as follows:
- April 15 (first quarter)
- June 15 (second quarter)
- September 15 (third quarter)
- January 15 (fourth quarter)
Notice that the January 15 quarterly payment is actually due not in the tax year itself, but early the following year (but before your tax return is due). Note also, that if the date falls on a weekend or holiday it may be extended to the next business day.
Tax Tip: If you are in a state where you are required to make state income tax estimated payments, pay your state estimated tax by December 31st. That way, you can claim a deduction for the tax payment in the current tax year.
LLCs: Business Owner Pays, Not the Business Itself
Keep in mind that for most small businesses it’s typically the owner — not the business entity itself — required to make estimated tax payments. That’s because most small business entities, such as LLCs, are what is known as “pass-through entities” for tax purposes.
According to Hanley, “Small businesses typically do not make quarterly estimated payments due to the fact that most small businesses are set up as flow-through or pass-through entities, which means that all taxes are paid at the personal level. This means that the vast majority of all estimated payments would be paid by the business owners, not by the businesses themselves.”
Tax Tip: Remember that some business entities (example: non-pass-through entities) are in fact required to pay estimated taxes on behalf of the business entity itself. These include C Corporations, S Corporations that conduct business in New York City, and S Corporations that conduct business in Washington, DC.
How to Calculate Your Estimated Taxes
The requirement to pay estimated taxes has some exceptions. Calculating the correct amount of your estimated tax payments can be complicated. The IRS has a Form 1040-ES  (PDF) that includes a worksheet you can use to calculate your estimated tax payments. In general:
- The Federal estimated tax requirement applies when you expect to owe at least $1,000 in Federal income tax for a tax year.
- Since estimated payments are made by individuals, you have to look at the big picture, not just your business liability. For example, you may not owe estimated taxes if your spouse is employed, and has sufficient taxes withheld from his or her paycheck. Same goes if you are also employed and have sufficient taxes withheld from your own paycheck. You can request that your employer or your spouse’s employer withhold more, to withhold enough to avoid having to file estimated payments. Simply complete a new Form W4  (PDF) for the employer.
- Also, if you had a refund due from the prior tax year, you can choose to apply that to the upcoming year.
Tax Tip: Use a CPA to help you prepare your taxes. Have the CPA generate an estimated tax payment schedule with amounts each year. Do this for the upcoming tax year, at the time you file your taxes for the previous year. Then follow that payment schedule exactly, unless your income or deductions change significantly.
Myths and Errors to Avoid
When calculating your quarterly or end of the year tax liability, always be sure you are considering your business’s whole financial picture.
As Hanley explains: “Too many small business owners get caught up in the myth that ‘whatever my business bank account balance is on December 31 is what I will have to pay tax on.’ While the December 31 bank account balance can be a very useful figure when performing a quick cash flow calculation, it tends to be VERY misleading when determining the profitability of a business. Items like paying down debt, borrowing money, carrying credit card balances, paying personal expenses, repaying shareholder loans, distributing profits to the owners, etc. will all impact how much money is in the bank at the end of the year, but will have no impact on the business profit.”
Tax Tip: When calculating your estimated quarterly tax amounts, be sure to calculate based on profit — in other words, income minus expenses.
What Happens if I Fail to Make Estimated Tax Payments?
If you did not pay enough in estimated tax payments (or other tax sources such as withholding), you will have to pay a penalty. You can avoid the penalty as long as you pay at least 90% of the tax for the current year, or 100% of the tax you owed for the prior year, whichever is smaller.
Special rules also apply to farmers and fishermen. Also, if failure to pay is due to a natural disaster, you may get a pass from the IRS.
Tax Tip: Like any tax rule, the penalties have various exceptions. See IRS instructions on Form 1040-ES for more. Publication 505  (Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax), also has more information.
How Do I File Estimated Taxes?
The IRS and most states allow for electronic payments of estimated taxes, in addition to paper filing.
If you can file electronically, Hanley says, it’s a good choice because you have better proof of payment. “Online payment confirmation is always more concrete than any proof of mailing or proof of delivery that the post office can provide.”
You can make electronic payments of your federal taxes through the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System .
Tax Tip: In most cases, electronic filing also gives you the ability to schedule future payments. Avoid the need to remember or set calendar reminders throughout the year, by scheduling all four estimated payments at once, electronically.
What About Estimated Taxes at the State Level?
If your state has an income tax, most likely you are required to pay estimated tax payments toward your state income tax, also.
Nine states do not have a personal income tax  on wage income. States that do not have personal income tax include: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming. New Hampshire and Tennessee do not tax wage income, but do tax interest and dividend income. However, be sure to check for any other business tax filing requirements.
Tax Tip: Go here  to find a list of state tax offices you can contact to find out if your state is one where estimated income tax payments are required. You can also find other information and appropriate forms or electronic filing links for each state.
Stay out of hot water by knowing your responsibilities for estimated tax payments at the state and federal level. Just as important as knowing the rules and requirements, you need to get yourself organized so you don’t inadvertently forget and slip up accidentally.
For more on making estimated tax payments, see the IRS web page on estimated taxes  for small businesses.
Note: The information provided in this article is general background information, and not intended to be tax advice. Always check available IRS materials, and with your own tax advisor.