Hiring your children - tax savings and doing it the right way

Tax savings

Paying your child for services performed in your family business can reduce your overall family tax bill, while shifting assets to your child without gift tax implications. As a business owner, you can take a deduction for the wages paid to your child, while your child can utilize his or her standard deduction (up to $6,300 in 2016) to offset those wages making them income tax-free (and possibly payroll tax-free). Additionally, the deduction might lower your adjusted gross income, which might favorably impact other deductions and credits that get phased out due to high adjusted gross income.

For example, a business owner in the 35 percent tax bracket hires their 14-year-old son to work in the office on weekends to help with filing, shredding, cleaning, etc. The child earns $6,300 in wages throughout the year and has no other earnings/income. Ideally, the child should receive a Form W-2 for the work performed. Since the full amount of the wages will be deductible as compensation paid by the business, the tax savings to the business owner is $2,205 ($6,300 x 35 percent), and  the income tax to the child is $0, since all of these wages are offset by the child’s standard deduction. In addition, if the business income is subject to self-employment tax, there would be additional tax savings by way of reduced self-employment income.

Even if the wages exceed the standard deduction, the child is allowed to make an IRA contribution up to $5,500 in 2016 which, as an “above the line” deduction, could substantially reduce the child's taxable income. If the maximum traditional IRA contribution is made, the first $11,800 of the child's taxable wages will result no income tax liability ($6,300 standard deduction + $5,500 IRA deduction). And again assuming the parents’ 35 percent income tax bracket, the child's wages would produce an income tax savings of $4,130 to them.

If wages are paid to the child in excess of the $6,300 standard deduction, and a Roth IRA contribution is desired as opposed to a traditional IRA, any income in excess of the standard deduction will be taxed at the child’s tax rate. The lowest tax bracket of 10 percent applies to taxable income up to $9,275 for 2016. Assuming a traditional IRA contribution is not made, the child could earn up to $15,575 ($15,575 - $6,300 standard deduction = $9,275 10 percent bracket limit) before being pushed into the next tax bracket, assuming he or she earns no other income. Please talk to your financial advisor before deciding on whether a traditional IRA or Roth IRA is right for you.

In addition to the income tax savings, you may be able to save on payroll taxes if your business is unincorporated. If you operate as a sole proprietor or a husband-wife partnership without other partners, services provided by your child under the age of 18 would not be considered employment for FICA purposes; therefore, you would not be required to pay FICA and FUTA taxes on the child’s wages. Additionally, FUTA is not imposed in this situation if your child is under age 21. If your business is a corporation (or a partnership that contains non-parent partners), FICA and FUTA taxes are still required to be paid on your child’s wages (note, the reduction in income tax is still achieved). However, there is no extra cost to the business owner, as these taxes would be required to be paid if you would have hired someone for similar work anyway.

As a future planning concern in arranging for contributions made to an IRA established for a minor, it is important to keep in mind that once the child reaches the age of majority, he or she will be free to take funds from the IRA as he or she pleases, and can even close the IRA out. With a distribution from a traditional IRA, there will be taxable income to deal with and, most likely a 10 percent additional tax on the amount of the distribution on account of a premature distribution from the IRA. And, if the conditions applicable to a Roth IRA, including the holding requirements, are not met, penalties, in addition to tax on the investment earnings could apply, as well as that 10 percent additional tax on the amount of the distribution. Therefore, in establishing an IRA for a minor, it’s often best going into this strategy with the intention that the child is to maintain his or her IRA intact for a long, long time or that the IRA is to be used for a specific funding purpose.

One example of a specific funding purpose involves taking distributions from a traditional or Roth IRA for “adjusted qualified higher education expenses” (AQEE). In such a case, regular income taxes will be due on distributions from a traditional IRA but usually not from a Roth IRA. As to the application of the 10 percent additional premature distribution tax on account of AQEE, if the taxable part of the distribution is less than or equal to the AQEE, none of the distribution from the traditional or Roth IRA would be subject to the additional 10 percent tax; if the taxable part of the distribution is more than the AQEE, only the excess would be subject to the additional 10 percent tax. For purposes of this rule, AQEE include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible educational institution. Also included are expenses for special needs services incurred by or for special needs students in connection with their enrollment or attendance. In addition, if the student is at least a half-time student, room and board would also be considered as AQEE.

In summary, there are good reasons to consider sheltering a portion of the child’s income in a traditional IRA or making after-tax contributions to a Roth IRA during the child’s minority period when presumably the exemption and the child’s income tax bracket are most favorable. In doing so, the parents/business owners will also want to consider the future strategy of the IRA as a basis for deciding whether to go with a traditional or Roth IRA, and that strategy should be communicated to the child. As a starting point, the strategy should involve steering clear of the application of the 10 percent additional income tax and maximizing any additional tax preference which would apply to a future distribution from the IRA.

Doing it the right way

When hiring your children, you need to be careful to treat them similarly to any other employee. This might include items such as:

  • Keeping detailed employment records, including timely tracking of weekly hours and wages that correspond to services provided
  • Issuing paychecks as you would a normal employee (e.g., bi-weekly)
  • Documenting that the services are legitimate and considered ordinary and necessary for the business
  • Ensuring the services provided do not include typical household chores

If your child is not treated like any other employee in a similar position, the IRS could potentially deem their wages as not ordinary and necessary, and disallow them as a deductible expense. In Patricia D. Ross v. Commissioner, TC Summary Opinion 2014-68, the IRS did exactly that.

Mrs. Ross operated several businesses, and hired her three children to perform services. The work performed by the children was mostly legitimate work and timesheets were prepared. Mrs. Ross filed the appropriate employment tax returns and the children’s income tax returns where required. While the above items were a good start, Mrs. Ross did not generally pay her children on a regular basis, but rather she often made payments to third parties for expenditures that her children “directed her to make” (most of which were meals at restaurants). Also, amounts "paid" to the children had no correlation to the amount of hours actually worked and there was no consistent wage rate (hourly rates ranged from $4-$30 per hour depending on the child and year). Based on all the facts and circumstances, the IRS determined that the arrangement between Mrs. Ross and her children was too dissimilar between that of a normal employer/employee relationship, and that all of the wages claimed as an expense were disallowed.

In no way should this case discourage a business owner from hiring their children and deducting the child's wages as an ordinary and necessary business expense. Rather, it should serve as a reminder on how to do it correctly. From an overall family tax standpoint, hiring your children is an effective tool in reducing taxes, but business owners should be mindful to treat them as they would other employees.

For more information on this topic, or to learn how Baker Tilly tax specialists can help, contact our team.


The information provided here is of a general nature and is not intended to address the specific circumstances of any individual or entity. In specific circumstances, the services of a professional should be sought. Tax information, if any, contained in this communication was not intended or written to be used by any person for the purpose of avoiding penalties, nor should such information be construed as an opinion upon which any person may rely.  The intended recipients of this communication and any attachments are not subject to any limitation on the disclosure of the tax treatment or tax structure of any transaction or matter that is the subject of this communication and any attachments.