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What is Payroll Tax Relief and When Does It Apply?

Updated for Tax Year 2021 • February 23, 2023 08:58 AM


If you’re self-employed, payroll tax relief and other parts of the CARES Act will have an impact on your 2020 taxes.


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Payroll tax relief might have been a new concept for many taxpayers in 2020, but it’s often good news for your tax returns and payment deadlines. While the particular relief for self-employed individuals will likely only apply in the 2020 tax year, it's important to understand how it works so you can prepare for the impacts this relief may have on your tax bill in the future.

Payroll tax relief for the self-employed

Congress enacted this relief in the form of a payroll tax deferral when it passed the CARES Act in March 2020. This relief was intended for employers, but it also applied to self-employed individuals.

In particular, the law allows self-employed individuals to defer the employer portion of Social Security payroll tax payments that would usually be due from March 27, 2020 to December 31, 2020. You must still pay the full employee side of Social Security taxes as well as both the employee and employer parts of the Medicare taxes commonly referred to as self-employment taxes on the normal schedule.

How a payroll tax relief deferral may help self-employed people

In total, self-employment taxes usually add up to 15.3% of a self-employed person's net earnings from self-employment. The deferral effectively reduces the required amount to 9.1% during the deferral period. This temporary tax break was designed to give employers' and self-employed individuals' finances a small reprieve to help them weather the pandemic.

If you are self-employed and struggled to keep your finances afloat because of reduced income, you may have elected to defer your eligible payroll taxes and use the money for other business-related needs or to put food on the table. The deferral only lasted for a limited time, though, and the full self-employment tax was reinstated on January 1, 2021.

Deadlines for repaying deferred payroll taxes

The tax payments deferred under this relief aren't forgiven. The law requires the amounts deferred under the relief to be repaid in up to two payments. How much you must repay depends on how much you deferred:

  • If you deferred the whole amount you were eligible to defer, half of the deferred amount is due by December 31, 2021. The second half of the deferred amount is due by December 31, 2022.
  • If you opted to defer less than the full amount available, repayment works a bit differently. The first payment, due by December 31, 2021, only has to cover half of the total eligible deferral amount. Any amount you already paid that you could have deferred would apply toward this sum.

For example, if you were eligible to defer $5,000 of payroll taxes, but you only deferred $2,000 and paid the remaining $3,000 as scheduled.

  • In this case, half of the total eligible deferral amount is $2,500. Since you've already paid $3,000 for the potential deferral period in 2020, you don't have to make a payment by December 31, 2021.
  • The remaining $2,000 deferral is due by December 31, 2022.

On top of resuming full self-employment tax rate payments in January 2021, you’ll also need to plan how you'll save to repay your deferred taxes by these deadlines.

How the payroll tax deferral impacts your tax return

As a self-employed individual, you were not required to defer your payroll taxes. If you wanted to, you could have continued depositing your self-employment taxes as usual. In this case, nothing would have changed from a regular tax year.

If you decided to take advantage of the payroll tax deferral, you must report this deferral on your tax return. This can be completed on Schedule SE and Schedule 3.

Payroll tax relief before the CARES Act

Payroll taxes are rarely a targeted form of tax relief, although it has happened in the past before the CARES Act went into effect. A temporary 2% reduction in the employee side of the Social Security payroll tax was in effect in 2011 and early 2012. This was not a deferral, though — it was a reduction of the tax rate.

Payroll tax relief after the CARES Act

Relief from payroll taxes has also happened after the CARES Act passed. In August 2020, an executive order was signed giving employers the option to defer the full 6.2% employee side of Social Security payroll taxes from September 1, 2020 through December 31, 2020, for employees making less than $4,000 per biweekly pay period. While self-employed individuals pay both the employee and employer side of payroll taxes, this tax relief did not apply to self-employed individuals.

The employee relief from payroll taxes would increase employees' paychecks during the deferral period but would reduce their paychecks when the deferred amounts must be repaid. The deferred amount originally had to be repaid through employees' paychecks ratably from January 1, 2021 through April 30, 2021. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, extended the repayment deadline to December 31, 2021.

Should you count on this in the future?

Despite the precedent of tax relief from payroll taxes in the past and after the CARES Act passed, it's not a common form of tax relief. You should not plan for additional payroll tax relief in 2021 and beyond.

Congress may decide to pass more relief or extend the deferred tax due dates, but no other laws have been passed at this time. It's better to view this payroll tax deferral as a one-time event and focus on how to repay the deferred payroll taxes. This way, you aren't counting on something that may not end up happening.

TurboTax is here to help you navigate the different COVID-19 relief programs that you might be eligible for. Get up to date information, tax advice and tools to help you understand what coronavirus relief means to you empowering you to get more money in your pocket in this time of need at our Self-Employed and Small Business Coronavirus Relief Center.

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