At Tax Time, Urge Review of Paycheck Withholding and Retirement Savings

Addressing tax issues can improve employees’ financial wellness

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS January 29, 2019
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updated March 22, 2019

It's tax season, and as employees look over their W-2 earned-income forms, which were due to them Jan. 31, and prepare to file income taxes by April 15, HR departments can advise them to review their paycheck withholding and consider increasing their contributions to tax-advantaged retirement accounts, tax advisors say.

Withholding Review

Due to changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which took effect in 2018, many employees may find that their withholding is not enough to offset their income taxes this year. Others may discover they've withheld too much, said Tom DiLorenzo, senior manager at consultancy EY's employee financial services.

"While tax rates were lowered in 2018, previously popular deductions are no longer available," DiLorenzo noted. For instance, the deduction for personal exemptions, which had been $4,050 for 2017, has been suspended for taxable years through 2025, but the size of the standard deduction has increased.

Tax season is prime time for employees to fill out and submit to their HR or payroll departments a revised Form W-4 for paycheck withholding "so that, come tax time next year, they're not put in a situation where they have tax due," DiLorenzo said.

"Few Americans actually withhold the right amount from their paycheck to cover their taxes," said Eric Bronnenkant, head of tax at Betterment for Business, which provides retirement plan services. That's why reminding employees to evaluate paycheck withholding and review Form W-4 elections—and outlining the steps in a withholding checkup—can be so helpful.

The IRS is encouraging employees, especially anyone who is now facing an unexpected tax bill, to do a paycheck checkup of their withholding for 2019. Those most at risk of having too little withheld from their pay, the IRS stated, include:

  • Taxpayers who itemized in the past but now take the increased standard deduction.
  • Two-wage-earner households.
  • Employees with nonwage sources of income.
  • Those with complex tax situations.

To help taxpayers get their withholding right in 2019, an updated version of the agency's online withholding calculator is available on www.IRS.gov.

By using the calculator, employees can see if they've withheld the correct amount of income tax from their paychecks for 2018 and what adjustments they may want to consider for 2019. Based on this information, employees can provide their employers with an updated Form W-4.

"This is especially helpful if there have been changes in household incomes, such as getting married, having a child or even a new promotion," said Samantha Malovrh, an employee benefits attorney at HR advisory firm OneDigital.

If employees without savings find that they haven't withheld enough from their paychecks, DiLorenzo said, they may have to take out a loan to cover the bill, "including a loan from their 401(k) account, which can mean that their retirement savings take a hit."

IRS Offers Underpayment Relief

The IRS expects individuals to meet annual requirements for withholding and, if necessary, to make quarterly estimated payments to avoid an underpayment penalty. For 2018 tax filing, however, the IRS announced Jan. 16 that it is waiving the penalty for any taxpayer who paid at least 85 percent of his or her total tax liability during the year through federal income tax withholding, quarterly estimated tax payments or a combination of the two. The usual percentage threshold is 90 percent to avoid a penalty.

On March 22, the IRS further lowered the 2018 prepayment threshold to 80 percent of any taxpayer's total tax liability for the year.

"We realize there were many changes that affected people last year, and this penalty waiver will help taxpayers who inadvertently didn't have enough tax withheld," stated IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. "We urge people to check their withholding again this year to make sure they are having the right amount of tax withheld for 2019."

HSAs for Last-Ditch Withholding

Employees who haven't withheld enough from their 2018 pay might still be able to avoid tax penalties if they're eligible to make additional contributions to a health savings account (HSA), Malovrh said. "Contributions to an HSA get an above-the-line tax deduction, meaning they will reduce the individual's adjusted gross income," she explained. HSA maximum contributions for 2018 are $3,450 for self-only coverage and $6,900 for family coverage. If individuals are 55 or older by the end of the tax year, they can contribute an additional $1,000.

"HSA contributions can be made up until the filing due date for an individual's tax return for that year—April 15 for most individual taxpayers—and these contributions can be allocated to the prior year," Malovrh said.

The ability to top-off your 2018 HSA contributions up until tax day "can save many account holders up to $1,000 or more on this year's taxes," said Todd Berkley, managing director of BenefitWallet at Conduent, a firm that manages HSAs and other benefits, and author of the HSA Owner’s Manual. "An account holder in a 25 percent combined federal and state tax bracket will save an additional $250 for every $1,000 contributed for tax year 2018."

Contributions through payroll are reported on the W-2 in Box 12, he noted. Contributions made in 2019 for the 2018 tax year will be reported as an above-the-line deduction on the front page of Form 1040. 

Even if it's too late for employees to adjust their withholding for 2018, there's still time to get their withholding amount correct for 2019 "so that they're not caught by surprise, again, come April 15 next year," DiLorenzo said.

Benefits Reporting

Aside from checking wages reported on Form W-2, employees should confirm that all eligible benefit elections were taken on a pretax basis. "If an error occurred with the pre- or post-tax status of the benefit elections, employees may face a higher tax liability when completing their tax returns," said Erica Cordova Zinkie, vice president and legal counsel at OneDigital.

In Box 12 of Form W-2, for instance, items that can affect an employee's taxable income if not correctly reported include the amount of HSA contributions made by an employer or through salary deferrals, and 401 (k) plan contributions made through salary deferrals.

HSA Considerations

HSA holder receive two tax documents each year from their HSA administrator:

  • Form 1099-SA must be mailed to HSA account holders by Jan. 31 and reports all withdrawals made during the previous tax year.
  • Form 5498-SA must be mailed to account holders by May 31 and will show the total contributions to the HSA for the year and the current market value of the account.

These forms assist HSA account holders with tax preparation but do not need to be filed with their return, Berkley noted. Administrators also send this information to the IRS.

Employees who made withdrawals from an HSA during the tax year should confirm that they received Form 1099-SA from their HSA administrator and that it correctly shows qualified and nonqualified HSA withdrawals for the year. Withdrawn HSA funds are exempt from income taxes when used to pay qualified medical expenses; if not used for qualified medical expenses, withdrawn funds are taxable as income and subject to a 20 percent penalty.

"Some administrators mail account holders both the 5498-SA and 1099-SA in January and then send an updated 5498-SA in May for account holders who make prior-year contributions up until tax day," Berkley pointed out.

In addition, HSA account owners must file Form 8889 to declare their individual HSA eligibility for the year, total contributions (deposits) and total distributions (withdrawals) and whether withdrawals were all for IRS-eligible medical expenses.

If spouses have separate HSAs but file a joint tax return, each spouse will separately report on a Form 8889, Berkley said.

If tax filers discover that they have over-contributed, they can work with their HSA administrator to correct their mistake "without IRS penalty as long as they complete that action before tax day," Berkley said. Most HSA administrators will charge a nominal fee to make this correction and to amend the tax forms they send to the IRS, he noted.

If tax filers don't discover the error until after tax day, they must pay a 6 percent excise tax on the overage. Afterward, "they should effectively 'remove' the excess contribution by avoiding a full contribution in the following tax year by at least the amount of the excess, because if they continue to leave the excess contribution in the account, they will need to pay a perpetual 6 percent excise tax on the earnings from the excess contribution into the future," Berkley warned.

"Needless to say, it is important to keep track of these items and act swiftly if they discover an error," he said.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: How do we handle income taxes for expatriates?]

1095 Forms for Health Care

The IRS extended the original Jan. 31, 2019, deadline for employers to distribute 2018 Forms 1095-C or 1095-B to employees. They now have until March 4, 2019, to get employees those forms. By filing Forms 1095-C with the IRS and providing employees with copies, employers with 50 or more full-time or equivalent employees show they offered eligible employees health coverage that was compliant with the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For smaller organizations, Forms 1095-B are filed and distributed by self-insured employers or insurance companies.

"Come tax day 2019, employees must show whether they or their family members had minimum essential coverage on Line 61 of their individual tax returns," said John Duval, president and CEO of Fuse Workforce Management, a compliance software firm. Although these forms are not filed along with individual tax returns, they help employees to complete their returns "by providing important information regarding their health coverage for the previous calendar year," he noted.

However, explained Greta Cowart, an attorney at law firm Winstead in Dallas, "some employees may be ready to file their federal income tax returns before they receive their Form 1095-C or 1095-B," so the IRS indicated that they may file their returns by relying on statements or other information from their employer or insurance carrier indicating that they received ACA-compliant health coverage in 2018.

Additional Tax Reminders

DiLorenzo raised two other tax issues that can trip up employees, and he encouraged HR departments to address them as part of their financial wellness efforts.

  • Responding to payroll errors. Payroll processing errors can lead to incorrect W-2 forms, "so it's important for employees to understand what to do if they get a W-2C," which is a corrected Form W-2. "Help them understand how to file an amended tax return if necessary, which may provide them with a tax benefit," he recommended.
  • Handling multistate tax filings. As the workforce becomes increasingly mobile, more employees generate income in more than one state and must file multiple state income tax returns. "Help [these employees] understand how nonresident state tax credits work, where, if you're paying tax to another state, you're going to receive a credit on your resident return to offset that nonresident state tax liability," he said.

Vesting of stock shares received under an incentive compensation program and other income from stock compensation also are reported on Form W-2.

Help for Lower-Income Earners

Tax-time communications should also inform employees about the IRS Free File service, which lets taxpayers who earned less than $66,000 in 2018 prepare and electronically file a return for free. It's among many services that the IRS makes available for preparing tax returns.

The retirement saver's tax credit may be an option for those who earned less than $31,500 last year and for married couples filing jointly who together earned less than $63,000 (the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies provides helpful resources). Informing employees about these options can help relieve some of their financial stress during tax season.


Saving for Retirement Lowers Taxes

Tax season is also a great time to remind employees that contributions to 401(k) or similar retirement plans can mean tax savings and that "the more you deposit into a retirement account, the more you can grow your account in dividends and compounding interest over time," Eric Bronnenkant at Betterment for Business said.

America Saves Week 2019, which takes place from Feb. 25 to March 2, is an opportunity to encourage employees to start saving through their workplace retirement plan as early as possible and, if they can, to increase their savings each year, even if by only a small amount. The annual event is coordinated by the nonprofit groups America Saves and the American Savings Education Council, which provide sample messages that employers can use to promote retirement savings.

"If your company provides a Roth 401(k), make sure you educate plan participants on the trade-off between traditional and Roth 401(k)s," Bronnenkant advised.

Traditional 401(k) contributions are made with pretax dollars deferred from employees' paychecks. During retirement, traditional 401(k) account holders will owe income taxes on funds they withdraw. Roth 401(k) contributions are made with after-tax dollars but withdrawals are tax free during retirement.

Most employees contribute to a traditional 401(k) so they can reap the tax savings during their working years, when their family expenses may be high. But whether they chose to contribute to a Roth or a traditional account, "HR should ensure that employees understand the tax consequences" now and in the future, Bronnenkant said.


Related SHRM Articles:

During Tax Season, Remind Modest Earners About the Saver’s Credit, SHRM Online, February 2019

How to Promote Retirement Savings for America Saves Week 2019, SHRM Online, January 2019

IRS Extends Form 1095 Distribution Deadline to March 4, SHRM Online, December 2018

2019 HSA Limits Rise, IRS Says, SHRM Online, November 2018

For 2019, 401(k) Contribution Limit for Employees Rises to $19,000, SHRM Online, November 2018

It's Time to Prep for ACA Reporting in 2019, SHRM Online, November 2018

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