Supreme Court Decides Severance Payments Are Subject to FICA Tax

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision by finding that severance payments unrelated to state unemployment insurance that are made to terminated employees are subject to tax under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA).

 The underlying case involved an employer, Quality Stores, Inc., that entered bankruptcy proceedings in 2001. Prior to and following the bankruptcy petition being filed, the employer made payments to terminated employees pursuant to two employee severance plans. When payments were made, the employer withheld federal income tax and the employee portion of the FICA tax and also paid the employer portion of the FICA tax on the payments. In 2002, the employer filed a claim for refund for the employer and employee FICA taxes paid on the severance payments. The IRS failed to either approve or deny the refund request, so the employer filed an adversary action in the bankruptcy proceeding. The bankruptcy court, district court and Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals all found that the severance payments were not subject to FICA.

The Supreme Court reversed the rulings of the lower courts based on FICA’s broad definition of “wages” which was found to include the severance payments. Following the Supreme Court decision, unemployment benefits other than those provided through state unemployment insurance are now “wages” subject to FICA tax. The Court noted that the IRS has taken the position that state unemployment benefits are not subject to FICA, but the Court reserved its opinion on whether that position is supported by FICA’s broad definition of “wages”.

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