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Using fringe benefits as an income substitute during the economic downturn
April 06, 2009

Many businesses are foregoing salary increases this year because of the economic downturn. How does a business find and retain employees, as well as keep up morale, in the face of this reality? The combined use of fringe benefits and the tax law can help. Some attractive fringe benefits may be provided tax-free to employees and at little cost to employers.

De minimis fringe benefits

A de minimis fringe benefit is any property or service whose value is so small or minimal that accounting for it would be administratively impracticable. Such benefits are excluded from an employee's gross income. Examples of de minimis fringe benefits include:

Occasional overtime meals and meal money. To qualify as a tax-free de minimis fringe benefit, the meal or meal money must be provided to your employees so that they can extend their normal workday, thereby enabling them to work overtime. Such meals and meal money can only be provided occasionally. This means that they generally cannot be provided routinely, when overtime work is a common occurrence or are contractually mandated for overtime work. Occasional snacks may also qualify as a de minimis fringe benefit but if the snacks are provided daily, they would not qualify.

Occasional transportation. Transportation costs can also qualify as de minimis fringe benefits. Taxi-fare for an employee to return home after working late, for example, may be a de minimis fringe benefit. The transportation must be occasional.

Holiday gifts. Traditional holiday gifts, such as a Thanksgiving turkey, with a low fair market value can generally qualify as a de minimis fringe benefit. However, cash or a cash equivalent such as a gift certificate in lieu of the property, do not qualify. In fact, cash and cash equivalent fringe benefits, no matter how little, are never excludable as a de minimis fringe benefit, except for occasional meal money or transportation fare.

E-filing. Electronically filing an employee's tax return, but not paying for someone to prepare the return, may qualify as a de minimus fringe benefit.

Telephone calls. An employer may treat the cost of local telephone calls made by employees as a de minimis fringe benefit.

Working condition fringe benefits

A working condition fringe benefit is any type of property or service provided to your employees to the extent that the cost of such property or services would have been deductible by the employee as a trade or business expense, depreciation expenses, or as if the employee paid for the property/services himself or herself. Working condition fringe benefits have special tax rules for employers and employees.

Vehicles. If an employer-provided vehicle is used 100 percent for business and the use is substantiated, use of the vehicle is considered a working condition fringe benefit. The value of use of the vehicle is not included in the employee's wages. However, when an employer-provided vehicle is used by the employee for both personal and business purposes, an allocation between the two types must be made. The portion allocable to the employee's personal use is generally taxable to the employee as a fringe benefit. The portion allocable to business use is generally considered a working condition fringe benefit and is excludable from the employee's income. 

No additional cost services

If an employer-provided service does not cause the employer to incur any substantial additional costs, it may qualify as a "no additional cost service" and be excludible from the employee's income. The service must be offered to customers in the employer's ordinary course of business. Some of the most common examples are airline, rail and bus tickets and hotel and motel rooms provided at a reduced rate or at no cost to employees. This benefit can be offered to retired employees as well as active employees. There are special rules for highly-compensated employees.

If you are considering alternatives to salary compensation, and would like to know what your options are, please contact our office. We can discuss the tax benefits and drawbacks of providing your employees with various types of fringe benefits.

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