Court Holds Severance Payments Are Not Subject to FICA Taxes

A federal appellate court decision may give employers and laid-off employees a new opportunity to be refunded FICA taxes paid on severance payments. The Sixth Circuit upheld the decision in U.S. v. Quality Stores, Inc. that the employer’s severance payments made to laid-off employees should not have been subject to FICA tax.

The Facts:  Quality Stores, Inc. filed for bankruptcy and laid-off numerous employees from locations that were forced to close. In compliance with plans created both before and after the bankruptcy, Quality Stores made severance payments to laid-off employees. The plan created after the bankruptcy filing was designed to retain current employees and provide a payment that acts as a safety net for laid-off employees. On severance payments, both the employer and employee were subject to FICA tax.  After paying the tax deemed to be owed, Quality Stores filed for a refund of the FICA taxes paid arguing that the severance payments were supplemental unemployment compensation benefit (SUB) payments and should not be subject to FICA taxes. In response the IRS denied the request for a refund and the case went to court to determine if a refund should be issued. The Sixth Circuit Affirmed the determination that Quality Stores’ severance payments should be considered SUB payments for the sake of FICA taxation and the refund was allowed.

For years the issue of whether or not severance payments made to laid-off employees should be subject to FICA taxes has been in dispute. Quality Stores may be the biggest breakthrough since the CSX Corp. case which determined involuntary lay-off payments are exempt from FICA taxes.

What does this mean for current employers and employees? Any employer or laid-off employee who has previously paid FICA taxes on severance payments may now have an opportunity to seek a FICA tax refund. In addition, future severance payments, if compliant with the requirements set forth in U.S. v. Quality Stores, may not be subject to FICA tax.

How can you request a refund? It may be easy to request a refund but doing so successfully is another story. You should contact a tax attorney who is familiar with requests for FICA tax refunds if you believe one may be due. Your time to request a refund is limited, so time is of the essence. Generally, the deadline to file a request for a FICA tax refund is the later of 3 years from the due date of the affected return or 2 years following payment of the tax.

Who can request a refund? Employers and employees who have paid FICA taxes on severance payments within the time period discussed above can request a refund. Employers and employees should consider filing a refund request as soon as possible for the best chance at a refund.

© 2012 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC

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