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Who in a small business can be hit with the "Trust Fund Recovery Penalty?"

July 14, 2021

There’s a harsh tax penalty that you could be at risk for paying personally if you own or manage a business with employees. It’s called the “Trust Fund Recovery Penalty” and it applies to the Social Security and income taxes required to be withheld by a business from its employees’ wages.

Wide-ranging penalty
The Trust Fund Recovery Penalty is among the more dangerous tax penalties because it applies to a broad range of actions and to a wide range of people involved in a business.

Here are some answers to questions about the penalty so you can safely avoid it.

What actions are penalized?
The Trust Fund Recovery Penalty applies to any willful failure to collect, or truthfully account for, and pay over Social Security and income taxes required to be withheld from employees’ wages.

Who is at risk? 
The penalty can be imposed on anyone “responsible” for collection and payment of the tax. This has been broadly defined to include a corporation’s officers, directors and shareholders under a duty to collect and pay the tax as well as a partnership’s partners, or any employee of the business with such a duty. Even voluntary board members of tax-exempt organizations, who are generally exempt from responsibility, can be subject to this penalty under some circumstances. In some cases, responsibility has even been extended to family members close to the business, and to attorneys and accountants.

According to the IRS, responsibility is a matter of status, duty and authority. Anyone with the power to see that the taxes are (or aren’t) paid may be responsible. There’s often more than one responsible person in a business, but each is at risk for the entire penalty. You may not be directly involved with the payroll tax withholding process in your business. But if you learn of a failure to pay over withheld taxes and have the power to pay them but instead make payments to creditors and others, you become a responsible person.

Although a taxpayer held liable can sue other responsible people for contribution, this action must be taken entirely on his or her own after the penalty is paid. It isn’t part of the IRS collection process.

What’s considered “willful?” 
For actions to be willful, they don’t have to include an overt intent to evade taxes. Simply bending to business pressures and paying bills or obtaining supplies instead of paying over withheld taxes that are due the government is willful behavior. And just because you delegate responsibilities to someone else doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook. Your failure to take care of the job yourself can be treated as the willful element.

Never borrow from taxes
Under no circumstances should you fail to withhold taxes or “borrow” from withheld amounts. All funds withheld should be paid over to the government on time. Contact us with any questions about making tax payments. 

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