On March 25, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court held that severance payments provided to a terminated employee are taxable. U.S. v. Quality Stores, Inc. 134 S.Ct. 1395 (2014). This case involved severance payments to employees laid off before and during bankruptcy proceedings. The size of the payments were determined by job security and length of employment. Given this case, most “severance payments” will be construed as taxable wages, wherein an employer should issue a W-2 and withhold taxes.
However, there certainly may be situations in which payments received from an employer at or around termination – at least some of the payment – may not be taxable wages. For example, if an employee is provided payment in lieu of a pending or possible discrimination claim, this payment certainly might contemplate payments for some combination of lost wages, emotional distress and/or attorney’s fees. What the payment is actually intended to cover may vary in each situation. Thus, it is important to look at the underlying nature of the payment in order to determine whether a payment is taxable wages. And, as a precaution, it is important to clarify what the payment is for – preferably in a writing between the parties.
Alas, it is also important to note that even if a payment is not “taxable wages”, there will most likely be taxes that are still due! For example, most emotional distress awards/settlements are taxable, just not taxable as wages. It is best to check with an employment lawyer and/or an accountant about this.