Taxing a Bonus or Commission

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Bonus & Commission payments are considered by the IRS as "supplemental wages".  Meaning they are supplements to an employees regular wages.  The IRS says this about supplemental wages,

"They include, but are not limited to, bonuses, commissions, overtime pay, payments for accumulated sick leave, severance pay, awards, prizes, back pay, retroactive pay increases, and payments for nondeductible moving expenses. Other payments subject to the supplemental wage rules include taxable fringe benefits and expense allowances paid under a nonaccountable plan."

How Taxes are Calculated on Bonuses or Other Supplemental Wages

How they are taxed largely depends on how they are paid; if you pay a bonus on a single check along with an employees other regular wages then you can allow the standard payroll tax tables which are driven by an employees W4 election to dictate the withholding.  However, if you separate the supplemental wage payment out from the employees regular wages then the IRS says to withhold Federal income taxes at a rate of 25%.  Therefore, if you pay someone a $5,000 bonus you would withhold $1250.00 for Federal income tax alone.  In addition, you would still be required to withhold State/local income taxes (Colorado at 4.63%), Social Security at 6.2% and Medicare at 1.45% (for YTD wages below $118K annually).  

Why is this? At this point I can only theorize as I've never seen anything from the IRS detailing the rational for this rate.  My assumption has always been that the tax rule is designed to insure sufficient withholding is taken out of supplemental payments so that employees don't have a tax surprise on their hands the following April.  The impact for many employees of this supplemental tax rate can be an over funding of their personal income taxes which leads to a tax refund personally.  For an employer there is zero impact from an expense standpoint.  An employer should NOT deviate from the IRS tax guidance on supplemental wages and should choose one of the two common options for taxing.

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Net Bonus Amounts

When an employer wishes to give an employee an after tax net bonus things get complicated.  Since the IRS supplemental tax rate is 25% and can lead to employee's earning being over withheld for the year; we advise employers to shy away from Net bonuses and instead settle on a gross amount for the bonus.  If you wish to give an employee a $1,000 net bonus, using the supplemental rate you would need to pay a gross bonus of $1594.39 (25% fed, 4.63% state, 6.2% social security, 1.45% medicare).  That's 37.28% you as an employer would be covering in addition to the net bonus payment and not including another 7.65% or more in employer taxes.  Frustrating? Yes, in particular if you know your employee is in a relatively low or middle class personal tax bracket and may have various dependents and other tax breaks personally.  But remember you do not want to give your employees personal tax advice.  At some point you the employer must settle on a gross amount for the bonus and determine if the payment should be combined with the employee's salary/hourly wages or tax using the flat rate percentages.  Either way, the employee is being rewarded with a bonus make sure you discuss with them the gross amount as that is their true reward not the net result after taxes.

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Here are the full details from the IRS,

Supplemental Wages Combined with Regular Wages

If you pay supplemental wages with regular wages but do not specify the amount of each, withhold federal income tax as if the total were a single payment for a regular payroll period.

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Supplemental Wages Identified Separately from Regular Wages

If you pay supplemental wages separately (or combine them in a single payment and specify the amount of each), the federal income tax withholding method depends partly on whether you withhold income tax from your employee's regular wages

1. If you withheld income tax from an employee's regular wages in the current or immediately preceding calendar year, you can use one of the following methods for the supplemental wages

a. Withhold a flat 25% (no other percentage allowed).

b. If the supplemental wages are paid concurrently with regular wages, add the supplemental wages to the concurrently paid regular wages. If there are no concurrently paid regular wages, add the supplemental wages to alternatively, either the regular wages paid or to be paid for the current payroll period or the regular wages paid for the preceding payroll period. Figure the income tax withholding as if the total of the regular wages and supplemental wages is a single payment. Subtract the tax withheld from the regular wages. Withhold the remaining tax from the supplemental wages. If there were other payments of supplemental wages paid during the payroll period made before the current payment of supplemental wages, aggregate all the payments of supplemental wages paid during the payroll period with the regular wages paid during the payroll period, calculate the tax on the total, subtract the tax already withheld from the regular wages and the previous supplemental wage payments, and withhold the remaining tax.

2. If you did not withhold income tax from the employee's regular wages in the current or immediately preceding calendar year, use method 1-b. This would occur, for example, when the value of the employee's withholding allowances claimed on Form W-4 is more than the wages.

Regardless of the method you use to withhold income tax on supplemental wages, they are subject to social security, Medicare, and FUTA taxes."

If you are still reading at this point, you might have a headache, feel free to discuss with your account manager at ASAP Accounting & Payroll.

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