Navigating tax rules for employee incentive trips
While end-of-year cash bonuses and cash awards are still popular, incentive travel programs are gaining traction as a way for companies to reward their top-performing employees with meaningful, personalized perks. After all, who doesn’t enjoy air travel and vacation as rewards for hitting their performance or sales goals?
But, are incentive trips taxable? As payroll professionals, you're right to be concerned about the payroll tax implications that come with these non-monetary perks. Informing yourself of the impact of incentive programs helps your organization steer clear of any potential financial repercussions caused by non-compliance.
We get it -- income tax and the taxation of incentive trips can be a maze to navigate, especially since different regions have their own set of rules to deal with. This article intends to be a guide, giving your organization a clearer picture of how to handle the important tax rules that might come into play.
How should tax be treated for incentive trips?
So, are employee incentive trips taxable? Before we dive into the subject, let’s take a look at
how employee incentives in general are treated for taxation purposes.
Are incentives taxable?
Unlike federal income, social security, or Medicare taxes, the general rule is that employee incentive awards like cash rewards, gift certificates, gift cards, or tangible personal items earned during a tax year, are typically subject to taxes. It’s the same story for cash equivalents, which are incentives that can be easily turned into cash.
Whether incentives are awarded in the form of cash or non-cash items, they must be reported on employees’ tax returns.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sees these incentives as taxable income for employees. The fair market value of the incentives usually counts towards employees’ gross income and needs to be reported on their tax returns. However, the type of incentive, why it was awarded, and how much its worth can affect whether it’s tax deductible and its tax treatment.
For example, in the case of employee achievement awards or tangible personal property (e.g. a watch or an iPad) given to an employee for length of service or safety achievement award, if the value of the award falls below a certain limit, it may be considered nontaxable income for the employee.
Are employee incentive trips taxable?
The short answer is yes, the IRS considers employee incentive trips to be taxable compensation, just like salary, wages, and other employee incentives.
Just as with other employee incentives and awards, the fair market value of the trip -- which is the actual value of the trip excluding other miscellaneous fees -- is typically included in the employee's gross income for federal income tax purposes.
When employees are rewarded for meeting performance goals, the value of the trip is generally considered taxable income. That means that everything from airfare, accommodation, meals, and other travel-related costs are taxable. The trips’ value should be reported as taxable compensation, and the correct tax withholding should be applied.
However, there are some scenarios in which the IRS may give you the green light to deduct the cost of travel awards as a business expense -- for example, if the trip is deemed an employee achievement award. According to The IRS Publication 15-A, you can exclude a maximum of $400 for all the awards given to the same employee in a year. But, if the value goes over this limit, it becomes taxable compensation subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll tax obligations.
Rewarding employees with incentive trips is a fantastic way to keep them motivated and show your appreciation. However, it's extremely important to navigate the associated tax rules for tax liability correctly.
This article is meant to serve as a quick guide to tax rules for employee incentive trips but it’s important to note that it doesn’t offer tax, legal, or accounting advice. Tax laws are ever-changing, so it’s wise to consult a professional before making any decisions.
To ensure accurate compliance with tax rules and regulations, and for advice on your business’s tax, financial, or legal responsibilities, it's recommended that you seek the guidance of a tax professional or accountant. They will have a deep understanding of tax rates and reporting requirements and can provide guidance tailored to your situation.