Cracking the Employee Credit Code for Employer Tax Breaks

Cracking the Employee Credit Code for Employer Tax Breaks

Some federal tax breaks depend on being small. Small, in this case, means the number of employees you have. If your business grows, you may think about adding employees. But consider the impact this will have on your access to certain small business tax breaks.

Tax Deductions for Employers

Credit for Starting a Retirement Plan

On 2019 returns, this amounts to a credit of 50% of expenses up to $1,000 ($500 credit limit) for starting a qualified retirement plan. This might include a 401(k) for your staff. You can claim this credit for three years. And you can even elect to have the year preceding the start of the plan as the first credit year. But the credit applies only if you have no more than 100 employees. And they must have received at least $5,000 in compensation from the business in the preceding year.

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At least one employee must participate. And this can’t include someone who is highly-compensated like an employee who is not an owner or owner’s spouse. You can’t claim the credit if during the three tax years preceding the first credit year, you established or maintained a qualified employer plan. This would include any plan to which contributions were made. It would also include plans where benefits were accrued. And it would include any plan for substantially the same employees as are in the new qualified employer plan.

You can claim the credit on Form 8881, Credit for Small Employer Pension Plan Startup Costs.

Note: Starting in 2020, the credit has been greatly expanded. It’s now the greater of $500 or the lesser of (a) $250 per employee who is not highly compensated and is eligible to participate or (b) $5,000. And there’s another credit for starting an auto-enrollment plan or converting an existing on to auto-enrollment of $500 per year for up to three years. And this is in addition to the other credit for starting a plan

Disabled Access Credit

This is a tax credit of 50% of costs over $250 but not over $10,250 to make your premises accessible or to provide adaptive services. The credit applies only if you have no more than 30 full-time employees during the preceding year or had gross income not exceeding $1 million in the previous year. An employee is considered full-time if employed at least 30 hours per week for 20 or more calendar weeks in the tax year. The credit is figured on Form 8826, Disabled Access Credit.

Small Business Deals

Small Employer Health Insurance Credit

This is a tax credit of up to 50% of the premiums you pay for your employees. It applies only if you have no more than 25 full-time and full-time equivalent (FTE) employees and their average annual wages are below a threshold amount. The calculation of employees for this credit is complicated. You do not include a sole proprietor, partner, LLC member, more-than-2% S corporation shareholder, owner of more than 5% of the business, or a family member of any of these individuals. And do not count seasonal employees who work 120 or fewer days per year. But do count 30 hours per week by other workers as amounting to one FTE. Exclude from the calculation any hours that exceed 2,080 in the year. So, in effect, only 40 hours per week are counted for any employee.

The credit is claimed on Form 8941, Credit for Small Employer Health Insurance Premiums.

Active Military Service Personnel Credit

Employers with fewer than 50 employees that continue to pay wages to those called to active duty can take a tax credit. The credit is 20 percent of up to $20,000 in differential wage payments. The company must have a written plan to provide for wage differential payments for all qualified employees.

These are payments to make up the employee’s shortfall in earnings when in the service; they help the employee take home in total (military pay plus wage differential payments) what he/she would have received had he/she not been called to duty.

Find more details in the instructions to Form 8932.

Other Credits and Deductions for Businesses with Fewer Employees

Savings Incentive Match Plans for Employees (SIMPLE) Plans

These retirement plans are limited to businesses with 100 or fewer employees who received at least $5,000 in the preceding year.

Simple cafeteria plans

These are plans offering employees a menu of fringe benefits. It can only be used for businesses with 100 or fewer employees on business days during either of the 2 preceding years.

Other Tax Rules Based on the Number of Employees

Centralized partnership regime

Partnerships with 100 or fewer partners can elect out of the regime in which the IRS audits the partnership rather than individual partners.

Employer Exemption from reporting health coverage on employees’ W-2s

If you have fewer than 250 W-2s for the previous year, you aren’t required to report employee health coverage on their W-2s (regardless of who pays for the coverage). However, you can choose to do so.

Recovery of legal fees from the government

If you have prevailed against an IRS challenge that was not substantially justified, you can recover your legal fees, but only if there are fewer than 500 employees at the time the action was filed and the net worth was below $7 million at the time the action was filed.

Final Thought

Review your eligibility for any of these tax rules with your CPA or other tax advisor.


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Barbara Weltman Barbara Weltman is the Tax Columnist for Small Business Trends. She is an attorney and author of J.K. Lasser’s Small Business Taxes and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Home-Based Business. She is also the publisher of Idea of the Day® and monthly e-newsletter Big Ideas for Small Business® and is a trusted professional advocate for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

One Reaction
  1. Thanks for the list. It may seem simple but it can save some money for the business.