Gifts to employees or customers are a traditional way to spread cheer and thanks to people important to your business during the holiday season. But the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says certain types of gifts are taxable, and making sure you follow the rules can avoid a Grinch-like spoiler later.

The IRS has outlined specific guidelines distinguishing between taxable and nontaxable gifts. Familiarizing yourself with these guidelines is akin to ensuring that your benevolent intentions aren’t met with unforeseen tax-related complications down the road.

Revel in the comforting knowledge that gifts and awards presented to employees serve as deductible expenses for employers – an incentive for fostering strong workplace relations.

Key Takeaways

  • Taxable Gifts: Cash or cash-equivalent gifts are taxable to employees.
  • Nontaxable Gifts: Non-cash gifts under $75 and certain awards are not taxable.
  • Employer Deductions: All gifts to employees are deductible as business expenses.
  • Customer Gifts: Business gift deductions are capped at $25 per recipient per year.
  • Gifts from Clients: Cash gifts from clients to employees are taxable income.
  • IRS Compliance: Adherence to IRS guidelines is crucial to avoid tax complications.

Taxable Income to Employees

  • All cash or gift cards redeemable for cash are taxable to the employee, even when given as a holiday gift.
  • Monetary prizes, including achievement awards, as well as non-monetary bonuses like vacation trips awarded for meeting sales goals, are taxable compensation – not just for income taxes, but also for FICA. Withholding applies.
  • Gifts worth more than $75 are taxable.
  • Non-cash employee gifts of minimal value (under $75 per year), such as a holiday turkey, are not taxable.
  • The tax-free value is limited to $1,600 for all awards to one employee in a year. Gifts awarded for length of service or safety achievement are not taxable, so long as they are not cash, gift certificates or points redeemable for merchandise.

Gifts to Customers

Many companies also give gifts to highly valued customers during this time of year.

The IRS is less generous about giving companies a break on these gifts and limits how much a business can deduct to $25 in gifts per person per year. This $25 limit applies whether the gift is given directly to an individual customer or indirectly to the company, but intended for individuals.

Giving a gift to a customer’s family does not get around the limit. Those gifts are treated as though they were given to the customer and are subject to the total limit for the customer. Similarly, gifts from different members of a partnership with one person are treated as though they all are coming from one source and the total deduction is limited to $25.

A bit of good news: Incidental costs, such as engraving, packaging, insurance, and mailing generally do not count against the $25 limit.

Organization's Employees Receiving Gifts from Clients

Organizations may find that individuals or groups who benefit from the organization’s services, desire to make year-end gifts to the organization’s employees for their loyal service. Examples include the parents of private school students providing year-end gifts to their children’s teachers or a hospital patient’s desire to financially thank the medical team that provided excellent care for the patient.

While we all would like the ability to just graciously give or accept gifts from the heart without worrying about tax consequences, many questions arise regarding the tax consequences of such gifts.

Those include the status of a charitable contribution deduction for the individuals involved and the taxability of the cash received by the employee.  Much depends on the process chosen for the gift giving.

While practices in the industry vary, common gift methods include:

    1. Individuals giving gifts directly to the employee(s);
    2. The use of a general fund created for pooling and administering the gifts directly to the employees; or
    3. Gifts given to the employer organization for distribution to the employees, either from such a fund or from the individuals.

While individuals would enjoy a tax deductible charitable contribution for the gift and the employees would prefer the gift to be nontaxable to them, this sort of “double dipping” is usually not the outcome.

Scenario #1

The individuals provide the gifts directly to the employees.

It probably is no surprise that in this scenario there would be no charitable deduction to the individuals.  The question that frequently arises in this situation is whether the gift is taxable income to the employees or mere nontaxable gifts.

To constitute a gift for purposes of federal tax law, a transfer of money or property must be made out of a feeling of disinterested generosity.  The payment must be in the nature of “something for nothing.” It is not a gift if the payment is a reward for services rendered. With regard to payments made by an individual to a service provider, it is difficult to argue that such payments constitute gifts, even when the amounts are paid at the holidays.  In addition, it is more difficult to make that argument when payments made by individuals are pooled together and allocated to service providers based on the number of hours that each provider worked in a given time period, or some other metric that is related to the provider’s employment.

Thus, the payment to the employee in most situations should be viewed as tip income which is taxable to the employee. Cash and noncash tips are subject to income tax.  All of the facts and circumstances must be considered, however, all of these factors should be present to classify a payment as a tip:

    1. The payment is made free from compulsion;
    2. The individual giver has the unrestricted right to determine the amount;
    3. The payment is not the subject of negotiation or dictated by employer policy;
    4. The individual giver has the right to determine who receives the payment.

Such tips also are subject to income tax withholding and with some exceptions, FICA withholding. Tips under $20 in any one month or noncash tips are not subject to FICA although they are subject to income tax.  If an employee receives more than $20 of tips in any month, then the employee should report the receipt of the tips to the employer so that the employer can withhold the proper amount and report the tips as other wages and tips on the employee’s Form W-2. The withholding is taken from the wages of the employee (other than tips) or from other funds made available by the employee for this purpose.  If the employee does not report the tips to the employer, the employee still is responsible for paying income tax and the employee portion of FICA.  In such a case, the employer portion of FICA only would be payable when the employer receives a written notice and demand from the IRS. It may be prudent for the employer to have policies and procedures in place for employee reporting of tips to the employer.

Scenario #2

The individuals create a fund into which they contribute cash and payments are made directly from the fund to the employees.

This fund can either be just a collection of cash or a separate legal entity.  If the gifts are provided from a fund that is not a separate legal entity, then the gifts are in essence coming directly from the individuals to the employees as discussed in Scenario #1.

The more controversial question is, if the fund is facilitated through a separate 501(c)(3) tax exempt entity, can the contribution to this exempt entity for gifts to employees be a tax deductible contribution?

The answer to this depends on whether the entity is acting merely as an agent for the individuals or if the entity has control of the funds and can spend it as it wishes.  Whether or not the entity is acting merely as an agent is a question of facts and circumstances. Do the individuals have control of the entity’s actions in the transaction? Is there a written agreement obligating the entity with respect to the transaction?  Is the entity holding itself out as an agent of the individuals for this transaction?

If the gifts are earmarked for the employees and the entity does not have the authority to spend the money in any way it deems fit, then the entity should be viewed as an agent acting on behalf of the individuals, and the conclusion is the same as Scenario #1.  If the entity has full control and discretion as to the use of the funds, then the gift should be deemed a contribution to the tax exempt entity and thus a charitable deduction should be allowable.  In that case appropriate acknowledgments of the charitable contributions should be given to the individual contributors.

The tax treatment of the gift to the employee from the entity would have to be analyzed in accordance with the definitions discussed in Scenario #1 to determine whether it is a tip or a gift.

Scenario #3

The charitable organization that employs the service providers in the place of the fund discussed in Scenario #2.  In this scenario, the charitable organization receives the contributions directly from the individuals and in turn provides the payments to its employees.

The analysis of this scenario is much the same as scenario #2.  Tips not only include amounts received directly from individuals, but also amounts paid to the employee by the employer on behalf of these individuals. Thus if the charitable organization is acting as an agent for the individuals, then the conclusion is the same as scenario #1; specifically, no charitable deduction for the individuals and likely taxable tip income to the employees.  If the charitable organization has full control and discretion over the funds and thus can spend it in any way it decides, then there should be a charitable contribution on the part of the individuals.  However, the income should still be taxable to the employee, but in this case as regular wages rather than tip income and should be treated as such in the employer’s accounting and payroll reporting.

Thus, in none of these scenarios does the employee receive tax free income, unless the gift is in no way connected to the services they provide, which is a difficult position to take even in scenarios #1 and #2, and nearly impossible when payment is made directly from the employer. Therefore, employers should encourage employees to report tips to the employer if the amount of the tip is at least $20 in any month and the employer should report the tips on the W-2 and withhold the proper amount.

Whatever scenario best fits your organization’s practices, be sure to provide proper donor acknowledgments for charitable contributions and proper employee records and tax withholding for tips or wages.  As a first step, decide which scenario best fits the organization’s desires going forward, regardless of how these gifts have been handled in the past.  Then speak to your tax advisor about proper reporting and structuring for the chosen scenario in future years and how to handle any required reporting for potential past errors.

Follow IRS rules for holiday gift giving

If you run a business and your good cheer includes giving gifts to employees or customers, the IRS has been thinking about you.

  • Are these gifts deductible for the company?
  • Are they taxable for the recipient?

As usual, it depends.

Here is a brief guide to the rules. For more detail, consult your tax adviser.

Employee gifts, awards and incentives

  • Gifts of minimal value, such as a holiday turkey, mostly are not taxable for employees.
    What’s the definition of minimal? Generally $25 to $75 per employee each year. Gifts worth more than that are taxable. (All amounts of cash or gift cards redeemable for cash are taxable, however.)
  • On the other hand, monetary prizes, including achievement awards, as well as non-monetary bonuses like vacation trips awarded for meeting sales goals, are taxable compensation — not just for income taxes, but also for FICA and unemployment taxes. Withholding applies.
  • Gifts awarded for length of service or safety achievement are not taxable, so long as they are not cash, gift certificates or points redeemable for merchandise. Tax-free value is, however, limited to $1,600 for all awards to one employee in a year.

The good news is all these gifts and awards, regardless of whether they are taxable to the employee, are deductible expenses for employers.

LBMC tax tips are provided as an informational and educational service for clients and friends of the firm. The communication is high-level and should not be considered as legal or tax advice to take any specific action. Individuals should consult with their personal tax or legal advisors before making any tax or legal-related decisions. In addition, the information and data presented are based on sources believed to be reliable, but we do not guarantee their accuracy or completeness. The information is current as of the date indicated and is subject to change without notice.

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