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Proposed Regulations Reflect Changes to Wage Withholding, Redesigned W-4


Andrew Presti

Proposed Regulations Reflect Changes to Wage Withholding, Redesigned W-4

The IRS has proposed regulations with guidance for employers on withholding federal income tax from employee’s wages. The proposed regulations:

  • implement recent changes made to Code Secs. 3401 and 3402 by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) ( P.L. 115-97); and
  • reflect the redesigned 2020 Form W-4, Employee’s Withholding Certificate, and the related wage withholding tables and computational procedures published in IRS Pub. 15-T, Federal Income Tax Withholding Methods.

TCJA Changes
The TCJA made many Code amendments affecting income tax withholding on wages. Among other things, the TCJA:

  • repealed the rule that, for purposes collecting income tax at source on wages, the “number of withholding exemptions claimed” meant the number of withholding exemptions claimed in a withholding exemption certificate in effect, except that if no such certificate was in effect, the number of withholding exemptions claimed was considered zero;
  • permanently modified the wage withholding rules and replaced “withholding exemptions” with a “withholding allowance” prorated to the payroll period, to reflect the reductions in the personal exemption amount to zero due to the temporarily repeal of the personal and dependency exemption deduction for tax years 2018–2025;
  • changed the list of factors on which the withholding allowance is based, and entitled an employee to take into account the number of individuals for which the employee expects to take an income tax credit for other dependents, instead of the number of individuals for whom the employee reasonably expects to claim an personal and dependency exemption deduction;
  • changed an employee’s entitlement to take into account the standard deduction from an amount generally equal to one withholding exemption to the standard deduction allowable to the employee (one-half of the standard deduction for a married employee whose spouse is an employee receiving wages subject to withholding);
  • added a provision that the employee’s withholding allowance also takes into account whether the employee has withholding allowance certificates in effect for more than one employer;
  • added the Code Sec. 199A qualified business income deduction to the list of deductions that an employee may take into account in determining the additional withholding allowance that the employee is entitled to claim on Form W-4;
  • struck references to payments made under certain divorce or separation instruments; and
  • changed the rules for withholding from periodic payments under Code Sec. 3405(a) when no withholding allowance certificate has been furnished.

IRS Guidance
After the TCJA was enacted, the IRS issued guidance for 2018 and 2019 to implement the changes (e.g., Notice 2018-14, I.R.B. 2018-7, 353; Notice 2018-92, I.R.B. 2018-51, 1038; Notice 2020-3, I.R.B. 2020-3, I.R.B. 2020–3, 330). The IRS also released a draft 2019 Form W-4 and instructions, which made significant changes intended to improve the accuracy of income tax withholding and to make the withholding system more transparent for employees. In response to comments received, Treasury and the IRS postponed implementing the redesigned form until 2020. The final redesigned 2020 Form W-4 was released on December 4, 2019, and was then rereleased on December 31, 2019, to reflect the amendment to the medical expense deduction threshold for 2020 made by the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 ( P.L. 116-94).

In 2019, the IRS also released drafts of IRS Pub. 15-T, which provided percentage method tables, wage bracket withholding tables, and other computational procedures for employers to use to compute withholding for the 2020 calendar year. IRS Pub. 15-T was finalized and released on December 24, 2019. Withholding tables previously published in IRS Pub. 15, (Circular E), Employer’s Tax Guide, IRS Pub. 15-A, Employer’s Supplemental Tax Guide, and IRS Pub. 51, Agricultural Employer’s Tax Guide, are now published in IRS Pub. 15-T. The IRS also discontinued publishing several other withholding tables in 2020.

Proposed Regulations
The proposed regulations incorporate the TCJA changes to Code Secs. 3401 and 3402, and provide flexible and administrable rules for wage withholding that work with both the 2020 Form W-4 and the related tables and computational procedures described in IRS Pub. 15-T, as well as Forms W-4 and related tables and computational procedures provided in 2019 and earlier years. The proposed regulations are generally compatible with the income tax withholding system in effect for 2019, as well as the system in effect for 2020, and may be relied on by employers for withholding until final regulations are published.

W-4 Issues
An employee is not required to furnish a new Form W-4 solely because of the form’s redesign, regardless of when the employee’s Form W-4 currently in effect was furnished. Similarly, an employer must generally continue to compute the amount of tax to be withheld from an employee’s wages based on a valid Form W-4 furnished by the employee regardless of when the employee furnished the Form W-4.

The 2020 IRS Pub. 15-T provides guidance on how employers will withhold income tax using Forms W-4 furnished and in effect on or before December 31, 2019. An employer can ask all employees who were first paid wages before 2020 to furnish a 2020 Form W-4, but if it does, the employer should explain that:

  • employees are not required to furnish a new Form W-4; and
  • if the employee does not furnish a 2020 Form W-4, the tax to be withheld from the employee’s wages will continue to be based on the last valid Form W-4 previously furnished.

Similar to the current regulations, the proposed regulations generally provide that Forms W-4 that took effect under prior law generally remain in effect until another Form W-4 is furnished. There are special rules regarding when a Form W-4 furnished by an employee subject to a “lock-in letter” stops being effective.

Periodic Payments
The proposed regulations do not address withholding under Code Sec. 3405(a) on periodic payments from pensions, annuities, or certain other deferred income. Instead, Notice 2020-3 describes the withholding rules for the 2020 calendar year.

Proposed Applicability Date
The proposed regulations are generally proposed to apply on the date that a Treasury Decision adopting them as final regulations is published in the Federal Register. Taxpayers may rely on the rules set forth in the notice of proposed rulemaking until that date. However, Proposed Reg. §31.3402(f)(2)-1(g) is proposed to apply on February 13, 2020 (i.e., the date the notice of proposed rulemaking was published in the Federal Register), Proposed Reg. §31.3402(f)(5)-1(a)(3) is proposed to apply on March 16, 2020 (i.e., 30 days after the date the notice of proposed rulemaking was published in the Federal Register), and a proposed removal of Reg. §31.3402(h)(4)-1(b) relating to the combined income tax withholding and employee FICA tax withholding tables is proposed to apply on and after January 1, 2020. Except for the removal of Reg. §31.3402(h)(4)-1(b), taxpayers may choose to apply the rules on or after January 1, 2020.

Comments and Requests for Hearing
Before the proposed regulations are adopted as final regulations, the IRS will consider any electronic and written comments that are submitted timely to the IRS. The Treasury Department and the IRS request comments on all aspects of the proposed rules. All comments will be available at http://www.regulations.gov or upon request. A public hearing will be scheduled if requested in writing by any person that timely submits written comments. If a public hearing is scheduled, notice of its date, time, and place will be published in the Federal Register.

Electronic submissions are made via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov (indicate IRS and REG-132741-17) by following the online instructions for submitting comments. Once submitted to the Federal eRulemaking portal, comments cannot be edited or withdrawn. The Treasury Department and the IRS will publish for public availability any comment received to their public docket, whether submitted electronically or in hard copy. Send hard copy submissions to: CC:PA:LPD:PR (REG-132741-17), room 5203, Internal Revenue Service, PO Box 7604, Ben Franklin Station, Washington, DC 20044.

All comments and requests for a public hearing must be received by April 13, 2020.