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Buying Time on Small-Business Taxes

Delaying payroll taxes is even harder and comes with its own risks for owners and their companies. "As an employer, you have a fiduciary responsibility to withhold your employees' share of Social Security, Medicare and federal income taxes," says Doug Cates, a partner at the accounting firm Cherry, Bekaert & Holland and leader of its Owner Managed Business group. "The employer is acting as the trustee of a trust fund."

Given that fiduciary role, you can rack up penalties and interest of up to 25% a month on the amount owed if you don't pay those taxes on time. Even worse, the taxes are not dismissible in a bankruptcy, meaning the IRS can collect directly from an owner or an employee considered a "responsible party" (which could mean simply that they had the authority to sign paychecks).

"Because of the high carrying costs as well the liability issues, you never tell an owner not to pay their payroll taxes," Cates says.

If you need a temporary reprieve, the IRS does allow payroll taxes to be paid on an installment basis, usually for a period of between one and two years. Keep in mind, though, that you're only buying yourself some time for the amount past due. You have to stay current with payroll taxes going forward. Signing an installment agreement also means putting up your company's assets as security.

"The IRS collection division is generally easy to work with," Cates says. But you'll be in much better shape if you take the initiative and ask for help: "If you know you're getting behind, you want to contact them before they contact you."

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