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Reimbursable Expenses Should Not Be Taxable Income

Worker entering receipts into computer

Unless you want to give money away to the IRS, expense reimbursements shouldn’t be taxed. When employees pay for expenses out of their pocket, they use their taxed income and so taxing the reimbursements for those expenses is like double taxing that money. You don’t want to do that. Your employees definitely don’t want you to do that.

Some employers that offer an expense allowance or reimburse expenses on employees’ paychecks, lump that reimbursement amount into an employee’s taxable income, figuring in social  security, Medicare, and FUTA taxes. Employers might think that it’s easier to do this than to keep reimbursements separate but, for one thing, it’s really not all that complicated to break it up, and two, it’s a waste of everyone’s hard earned cash.

Reimbursing Employees, Un-taxed

In order to give employees reimbursements as non-taxable wages, there are a few simple rules that everyone needs to follow. The IRS calls this an accountable plan, as described on page 15 of the IRS’s Employer’s tax guide.

Accountable Plan

Having an accountable plan in place, just means that three simple rules are communicated to employees and are followed by employees.

  1. Deductible expenses
  2. Substantiated
  3. Return excess

Deductible expenses – First, the expenses incurred must be deductible to begin with. Deductible expenses are things like car rental, hotel, and meals for a business trip and not things like admission to the museum, the ferry out to Alcatraz, and the like. If employers choose to reimburse employees for all the fun they have on business trips, most of those expenses wouldn’t fall under the accountable plan and would need to be reimbursed as taxable wages. Again, this isn’t so complicated. Business owners generally know what is deductible and what is not. They just need to communicate this to employees in their written plan.

Substantiated – Second, employees must submit receipts and other necessary substantiation. The need to submit receipts is pretty obvious. What employer is going to reimburse based on verbal claims that an employee spent some money for the company. What might not be so obvious is that employees also need to submit record of how those expenses were related to the business. So, yes, dinner can be deductible but only when it is related to business. For an expense to properly fall under the accountable plan, it is the employee’s job to substantiate the claim with not only a receipt but documentation of the work purpose. In order for the IRS to accept the reimbursements as non-taxable wages, there needs to be adequate substantiation.

Excess Returned – This last rule doesn’t apply to everyone since not everyone uses an allowance. If an expense allowance is offered for mileage or other expenses, then employees need to keep track of how much is spent and then give the employer back any excess. So for example, if the employer gives an employee a $100 monthly mileage allowance and the employee only drives 100 miles that month, the employee would need to return the excess 46 dollars (based on the 54 cent per mileage reimbursement rate).

Creating an accountable plan or expense policy is not difficult. Sketching one up involves laying out the rules above as well as the specific expenses that your business allows for its different employees.

Expenses Considered Taxable Income

There are a few cases in which an employer might reimburse expenses as taxable wages.

  1. No accountable plan
  2. Not substantiated
  3. Not submitted within a reasonable amount of time.

If an employer does not have an accountable plan, i.e. they haven’t presented these rules to employees and employees are not submitting receipts for valid deductible expenses, then any reimbursements made by the employer must be paid as wages.

Likewise, if an employer does have an accountable plan but employees don’t either substantiate their expenses or don’t submit them within a reasonable amount of time, the expenses could also be considered taxable wages.

A lot of employees who get reimbursed in this way on their regular paycheck wonder if it’s legal. It is perfectly legal; it’s just not all that smart.

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11 Responses

  1. My situation is very specific to telecommuting and travel to my office for business reasons. I recently had to travel from my home (which I work from 100% of the time) to my office which is 650 miles away. My company reimbursed my travel expenses but are reporting the entire reimbursement as taxable income. Is it correct for them to do so ?

    Thanks for any input

  2. Yes, they can do that. There are ways to negate that, but as of 2018 its a little more tricky. Depending on your income it may not be a bad thing. If you are worried about EIC then you may have something worry about but I wouldnt. Again its not that much Money.

  3. My employer reimbursed me for tax preparation fees, is this considered taxable income?

  4. I work overseas and my company has an accountable reimbursement plan but they add the reimbursements back to my taxable income. I’d that legal? They have been doing this for 5 years, can I have my taxes amended to update my business related expenses to expenses not reimbursed if I didn’t receive 1099?

  5. I am being reimbursed for schooling that I obtained prior to my employment. I am being taxed on this reimbursement as if it were income. Is that the way it should work?

  6. I work for a non-profit supporting the Greenville County Armed Forces Day Parade. Our fiduciary is Greenville County Schools. P paid for items used to support the parade out of pocket and was reimbursed by the school. The school sent me a 1099-misc form for the money they reimbursed me in 2019. When I include that on my tax form I pay taxes on that amount. How do I list it without paying tax?

    1. That’s a question for a CPA, but if it’s a non taxable reimbursement I don’t think you need it list it at all. Still, get an answer to confirm this and don’t take our word for it – we’re not CPAs here.

  7. I work for the post office. Some employees are given trucks and a credit card for gas and repairs are paid for by the post office.
    I buy the truck pay for the gas and all the repairs and then the employer reimburses me.
    Would it be considered income for me and not the employees who are not responsible for the costs?

    1. Reimbursed expenses are not income. I’d check with your accountant to find out for sure.

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