Sam Brotman, JD, LLM, MBA August 3, 2016 11 min read

Federal Payroll Tax: What the IRS Expects from Business Owners


Sam Brotman, JD, LLM, MBA

Owner and Director of Legal
Brotman Law

federal payroll tax

If you have employees, you are liable for federal payroll taxes. Some taxes are withheld from your employee’s wages, some you must pay yourself.

The Internal Revenue Service, or IRS, administers payroll taxes as part of its responsibilities. Remaining in compliance means understanding how and when payroll taxes are calculated, filed, and paid.

Brief Overview of IRS

The IRS administers the Internal Revenue Code, which means it is in charge of income and payroll taxes for the entire nation. Included in the payroll tax are payments for the federal unemployment tax, also known as FUTA.

The IRS also performs audits of tax returns for fraudulent activity, underpayment, and other issues. The agency has the capability to levy fines, interest on unpaid taxes, and liens on a property. It can also charge civil and criminal charges depending on the severity of the offense and whether or not it was considered to be willful or negligent (unintended).

IRS vs. California Tax Agencies

The primary difference between the IRS and the tax agencies of the State of California is that the IRS is a single agency that administers federal taxes including federal income tax, Social Security, and Medicare. It also collects federal unemployment taxes.

Federal unemployment tax helps fund state workforce agencies including the EDD. It also pays those who have become unemployed as a supplement to state assistance.

Taxes for the State of California are administered by three separate agencies. The Franchise Tax Board (FTB) administers the state’s personal income tax and corporate taxes. The Board of Equalization (BOE) administers sales and use tax, property tax, and special taxes.  The Employee Development Department (EDD) is in charge of payroll taxes at the state level.

The EDD collects state unemployment insurance tax and an employee training tax from the employer as well as collecting disability insurance and state persona income tax from the employee. The disability insurance tax pays for Paid Family Leave.

The state unemployment insurance tax provides temporary assistance to people who are unemployed through no fault of their own. The employee training tax was enacted to help the California labor market grow. It provides training to workers in specific targeted industries.

State disability insurance tax provides assistance to employees who are temporarily unable to work because of a non-work-related disability (work-related disabilities are covered by worker’s compensation). It also provides for paid family leave for employees who must remain at home to care for a seriously ill family member or a new child.

The penalties for late or non-payment of federal taxes often differs from the state. For example, the IRS uses the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty (formerly known as the 100% Rule). This penalty places the responsibility for 100% of the liability for employment taxes on the employer. However, it is limited to the money withheld from the employee’s wages. It cannot hold the employer personally liable for the employer matching funds or for corporate level tax issues.

The state, on the other hand, has a more severe version of the 100% Rule that allows the state to hold any officer, major stockholder, or other person with the responsibility for EDD payroll tax compliance liable for 100% of the entire tax burden owed by the corporation or limited liability company, if the failure to comply can be considered willful.

Federal Payroll Taxes

As mentioned before, federal payroll taxes are applied to Social Security and Medicare (FICA) and FUTA. These are paid by the employer through wages withheld (FICA) and through a tax on the employer (FICA and FUTA).

The employer provides Form W-4 to the employee to use in determining withholding amounts and a Form W-2 by the end of each January showing withholding for the previous tax year.  Independent contractors can be provided a Form 1099 since there is no withholding.

Taxes are calculated as a percentage of the employee’s income, which tells the employer how much to withhold from wages and how much to pay into the system. Deposit and return filing deadlines depend on the type of tax.

Tax return filings and deposits are not necessarily done together.


FICA requires returns to be filed quarterly using Form 941. The deadline is the last day of the first month after the quarter ends. FUTA, on the other hand, is filed with Form 940 as an annual return with a deadline of January 31 for the prior calendar year. If you have deposited the funds on time during the year, you are automatically granted a 10-day extension which may be lengthened through a written request.


FICA deposit timing depends on the size of the employer. Only very small employers that have an estimated annual employment tax liability of $1,000 or less for an entire calendar year can pay annually using Form 944. Agricultural and household employers have different rules as well.

FICA can be paid quarterly as long as employment tax for the current or preceding quarter is less than $2,500. The tax can be deposited along with filing the employer’s Form 941 return. Monthly deposits are allowed if $50,000  or less in tax is owed. Anything more than that and the employer must pay semi-weekly.

Monthly deposits on wages paid out for a calendar month must be paid by the 15th of the next month.

Semi-weekly deposits for wages paid on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday must be made by the following Wednesday. Deposits for wages paid on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday are due the following Friday.

FUTA deposits are made quarterly unless the tax liability if $500 or less. Then it can be rolled into the next quarter. Anything over $500 and FUTA must be paid by the last day of the month following the end of each quarter.

For example, for the quarter ending March 31, the FUTA deposit is due no later than April 30.

All payments are required to be made electronically unless the employer has a small business exception. Payment may be made through the Treasury Department’s Electronic Federal Tax Payment System. You can also pay through a financial institution using an ACH credit payment or through a trusted third party such as an accountant or a payroll service.


Late payments are subject to penalties and interest on the unpaid amount. Incorrect payments can be punishable if they are due to evasion and fraud, such as falsified returns or misclassification of employees.  Willful tax evasion can get you sent to prison and you may have liens placed on your property.

If the cause is simply due to miscalculation or error, it is not considered to be done willfully, and a penalty plus interest will be levied.

Resolving Penalties

Penalties are avoidable; simply pay the entire amount owed on time. If you cannot, pay as much as possible to minimize interest.

You can also apply for a monthly payment plan or file an Offer in Compromise.

Federal payroll taxes are required of anyone who pays an employee. The IRS is clear on when taxes must be filed and paid. If you are unable to do so, resorting to evasion will hurt more than paying interest.

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Last updated: October 6, 2022

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Sam Brotman, JD, LLM, MBA

Owner and Director of Legal
Brotman Law



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