Last week, the Supreme Court decided a case about how severance pay must be treated for tax purposes. The employer in the case (United States v. Quality Stores) had declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The employer provided severance pay in two programs: One paid employees who were terminated immediately, and the other paid employees who stayed with the company through its bankruptcy reorganization, until an agreed-upon termination date. Like most severance plans, the company’s program was based on length of employment and job grade.
The employer and the IRS agreed that the severance pay should be treated as income for purposes of income tax withholding. What they disagreed about was FICA taxes: the payroll taxes, split between employer and employee, that fund Social Security and Medicare. Although the employer initially paid it share of these taxes and withheld the employees’ share from their severance, it later asked the IRS for this money back, to the tune of more than a million dollars. The employer’s claim was that the severance payments didn’t count as “wages” under IRS rules.
The Supreme Court disagreed. In a unanimous decision, the Court found that severance pay is subject not only to income tax withholding, but to FICA tax withholding as well. (And, employers must pay their half of these taxes on severance.) The Court found that severance pay falls squarely within the definition of wages as “remuneration for employment,” especially where, as here, they are based on the employee’s tenure and role at the company. Not a big surprise, but at least employers can now blame the Supreme Court when terminated employees complain that their severance pay is less than they thought it would be.