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What is the Difference Between Income Tax and Payroll Tax?

Payroll taxes are complicated, especially when you don’t have any payroll training. Small business owners have several tax responsibilities that they must manage throughout the year, which can take up hours of your time each month. Of course, if you incorrectly calculate the tax withholdings for someone’s paycheck, both the employee and the federal or state government may have a bone to pick with you.

One of the most time-consuming and difficult parts of payroll tax management is that there is more than one type of tax that you need to handle. You are responsible for withholding multiple types of taxes from your employees’ wages, including income tax and payroll tax. These taxes each have specific rules in terms of how you and your employees contribute to them and what groups regulate them. Here’s a rundown of the difference between income tax and payroll tax.

Income tax and payroll tax documents for a small business. 

What is Income Tax?

Income tax is part of what the IRS deems as employment taxes, which also includes items like unemployment taxes. In all, income tax is comprised of federal, state, and local income taxes, depending on where your business and employees are located. These taxes are used to fund public services such as parks, education, and other programs.

Federal income tax is mandatory for employees in all states. The amount of federal income tax you withhold from each employee’s paycheck will depend on the allowances they selected on Form W-4, which is required for each employee after they’re hired. The more allowances an employee claims, the less you’ll generally have to withhold from his or her paycheck. The IRS’ Publication 15 provides calculation methods and table so that you can determine what needs to be withheld from each employee’s paycheck.

State and local income tax are regulated by individual state and local governments. However, only 41 states require employers to withhold state income tax from employees’ wages. Two states—New Hampshire and Tennessee—have income taxes that don’t apply to employment income. The seven other states simply don’t have any income taxes to worry about at all: 

  • Alaska
  • Florida
  • Nevada
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wyoming

Local income taxes are not nearly as common as state income taxes. There are only 16 states that require you to withhold local income taxes in addition to state and federal income taxes: 

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Delaware
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia

While you can use Publication 15 for instructions on how to calculate federal income tax, state and local income taxes are dependent on the location of your business and your employees. Each state has its own rates for state and local income tax (if applicable), some of which will be a flat percentage while others have their own personal allowance system that require additional calculations. You’ll need your state government’s site to find specific details in terms of withholding rates and depositing schedules. 

It’s also important to note that while your business may be in one state, out-of-state employees may be subject to different payroll regulations depending on their location. This can affect the amount of income tax you withhold from these employees’ wages and open you up to non-compliance penalties, so make sure you stay up to date with the regulations for different states and local governments if they apply to your employees or multiple business locations.

What is Payroll Tax?

While multiple taxes affect payroll, the IRS does have a more specific definition for “payroll taxes.” These taxes are also known as FICA taxes and are a combination of Social Security and Medicare taxes, both of which fall under the Federal Insurance Contributions Acts (FICA). As expected, these taxes are used to fund Social Security and Medicare programs.

Unlike federal income tax and some state and local income taxes, payroll taxes are based on a flat percentage. However, FICA taxes also call for both employees and employers to contribute to them. For Social Security tax, both parties contribute 6.2 percent of an employee’s wages up to a wage base of $128,400 for 2018. Medicare tax is similar in that both the employer and employee contribute 1.45 percent of the employees wages up to the following wage base limits:

  • $200,000 for employees who are single
  • $250,000 for employees who are married and file jointly
  • $125,000 for employees who are married and file separately

However, Medicare also requires you to withhold an additional 0.9 percent of wages once an employee passes those wage base thresholds. As an employer, you are not required to match this additional 0.9 percent contribution.

Stay on Top of the Payroll Process

The multiple types of taxes involved in the payroll process are just one reason why one third of small businesses spend at least 40 hours per year managing payroll taxes. Add in the potential for mistakes that can lead to fines from the IRS and it makes sense why many small business owners turn to outside companies to help them manage their payroll.

As a Professional Employer Organization, GMS has a team of experts that can help decrease your payroll responsibilities and liabilities while saving you valuable time. Contact GMS today to talk to one of our experts about how outsourcing payroll administration and other HR functions can benefit your business.

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