Most employers pay or reimburse their employees’ expenses when traveling for business. Generally, expenses for transportation, meals, lodging and incidental expenses can be paid or reimbursed by the employer tax-free if the employee is on a short-term trip. However, the tax rules become more complex when the travel is of a longer duration. Sometimes the travel expenses paid or reimbursed by the employer must be treated as taxable compensation to the employee subject to Form W-2 reporting and payroll taxes.
The purpose of this article is to address some of the more common travel arrangements which can result in taxable income to employees for federal tax purposes. Although business travel can also raise state tax issues, those issues are beyond the scope of this article. This article is intended to be only a general overview as the tax consequences to an employee for a given travel arrangement depend on the facts and circumstances of that arrangement.
In the discussion below, it is assumed that all travel expenses are ordinary and necessary and incurred by an employee (or a partner in a partnership) while traveling away from home overnight for the employer’s business. In addition, it is assumed that the expenses are properly substantiated so that the employer knows (1) who incurred the expense; (2) where, when, why and for whom the expense was incurred, and (3) the dollar amount. Employers need to collect this information within a reasonable period of time after an expense is incurred, typically within 60 days.
Certain meal and lodging expenses can fall within a simplified substantiation process called the “per diem” rules (although even these expenses must still meet some of the substantiation requirements). The per diem rules are outside the scope of this article.
One of the key building blocks for the treatment of employee travel expenses is the location of the employee’s “tax home.” Under IRS and court holdings, an employee’s tax home is the employee’s regular place of work, not the employee’s personal residence or family home. Usually the tax home includes the entire city or area in which the regular workplace is located. Generally, only expenses paid or reimbursed by an employer for an employee’s travel away from an employee’s tax home are eligible for favorable tax treatment as business travel expenses.
Travel to a regular workplace
Usually expenses incurred for travel between the employee’s residence and the employee’s regular workplace (tax home) are personal commuting expenses, not business travel. If these expenses are paid or reimbursed by the employer, they are taxable compensation to the employee. This is the case even when an employee is traveling a long distance between the employee’s residence and workplace, such as when an employee takes a new job in a different city. According to the IRS, if it is the employee’s choice to live away from his or her regular workplace (tax home), then the travel expenses between the two locations which are paid or reimbursed by the employer are taxable income to the employee.
Example: Bob’s personal residence is in Chicago, but his regular workplace is in Atlanta. Bob’s employer reimburses him for an apartment in Atlanta plus his transportation expenses between the two cities. Since Atlanta is Bob’s tax home, these travel expenses are personal commuting expenses and the employer’s reimbursement of the expenses is taxable compensation to Bob.
Travel to two regular workplaces
Sometimes an employer requires an employee to consistently work in two business locations because of the needs of the employer’s business. Factors such as where the employee spends the most time, has the most business activity, and earns the highest income determine which is the primary location with the other being the secondary location. The employee’s residence may be in either the primary or the secondary location. In general, the IRS holds that transportation costs between the two locations can be paid or reimbursed by the employer tax-free. In addition, lodging and meals at the location which is away from the employee’s residence can generally be paid or reimbursed tax-free.
Example: Caroline lives in Location A and works at her company headquarters there. Her employer opens a new store in Location B and asks her to handle the day-to-day operations for two years while the store is getting up to speed. But Caroline is also needed at the headquarters so her employer asks her to spend two days a week at the headquarters in Location A and three days a week at the store in Location B. Because the work at each location is driven by a business need of Caroline’s employer, she is treated as having primary and secondary work locations and is not treated as commuting between the two locations. Caroline’s travel between the two locations and her meals and lodging at Location B can be reimbursed tax-free by her employer.
As a practical matter, the employer must carefully consider and be able to support the business need for the employee to routinely go back and forth between two business locations. In cases involving two business locations, the courts have looked at time spent, business conducted and income generated in each location. Merely having an employee “sign in” or “touch down” at a business location near his or her residence is unlikely to satisfy the requirements for having two regular workplaces. Instead, the IRS would likely consider the employee as having only one regular workplace with employer-paid travel between the employee’s residence and the regular workplace being taxable commuting expenses.
Travel when a residence is a regular workplace
In some cases an employer hires an employee to work generally, or only, from the employee’s home, as he or she is not physically needed at an employer location. If the employer requires the employee to work just from his or her residence on a regular basis, does not require or expect the employee to travel to another office on a regular basis, and does not provide office space for the employee elsewhere, then the residence can be the tax home since it is the regular workplace for the employee. When the employee does need to travel away from his or her residence (tax home), the temporary travel expenses can be paid or reimbursed by the employer on a tax-free basis.
Example: Jason is a computer programmer and works out of his home in Indianapolis for an employer in Seattle. He periodically travels to Seattle for meetings with his team. Since Jason has no assigned office space in Seattle and is expected by his employer to work from his home, Jason’s travel expenses to Seattle can be reimbursed by his employer on a tax-free basis.
Note: There can be state issues when an employer permits an employee to work from his or her residence in a state where the employer does not otherwise have an office. For example, in a recent case, the Idaho State Commission determined that a company should be treated as transacting business in Idaho because the company (1) had an employee in Idaho for the purpose of (or resulting in) economic gain or profit, and (2) provided the employee with a computer for work purposes. The Commission arrived at this conclusion even though the employee did not work with the company’s customers and was just writing software code for internal company systems from the employee’s residence.
Travel to a temporary workplace
Sometimes an employer temporarily assigns an employee to work in a location that is far from the employee’s regular workplace, with the expectation that the employee will return to his or her regular workplace at the end of the assignment. In this event, the key question is whether the employee’s tax home moves to the temporary workplace. If the tax home moves to the temporary workplace, the travel expenses between the employee’s residence and the temporary workplace that are paid or reimbursed by the employer are taxable compensation to the employee because they are personal commuting expenses rather than business travel expenses. Whether or not the employee’s tax home moves to the temporary workplace depends on the duration of the assignment and the expecations of the parties.
- One year or less. If the assignment is expected to last (and actually does last) one year or less, the employee’s tax home generally does not move to the temporary workplace. Therefore, travel expenses between the employee’s residence and temporary workplace that are paid or reimbursed by the employer are typically tax-free to the employee as business travel.
Example: Janet lives and works in Denver but is assigned by her employer to work in San Francisco for 10 months. She returns to Denver after the 10-month assignment. Janet’s travel expenses associated with her assignment in San Francisco that are reimbursed by her employer are not taxable income to her as they are considered temporary business travel and not personal commuting expenses.
- More than one year or indefinite. If the assignment is expected to last more than one year or is for an indefinite period of time, the employee’s tax home generally moves to the temporary workplace. This is the case even if the assignment ends early and actually lasts one year or less. Consequently, travel expenses between the employee’s residence and the temporary workplace that are paid or reimbursed by the employer are taxable compensation to the employee as personal commuting expenses.
Example: Chris lives and works in Dallas but is assigned by his employer to work in Oklahoma City for 15 months before returning to Dallas. Chris’s travel expenses associated with his assignment to Oklahoma City that are reimbursed by his employer are taxable income to him as personal commuting expenses.
- One year or less then extended to more than one year. Sometimes an assignment is intended to be for one year or less, but then is extended to more than one year. According to the IRS, the tax home moves from the regular workplace to the temporary workplace at the time of the extension. Therefore, travel expenses incurred between the employee’s residence and the temporary workplace that are paid or reimbursed by the employer are non-taxable business travel expenses until the time of the extension, but are taxable compensation as personal commuting expenses after the extension.
Example: Beth’s employer assigns her to a temporary workplace in January with a realistic expectation that she will return to her regular workplace in September. However, in August, it is clear that the project will take more time so Beth’s assignment is extended to the following March. Once Beth’s employer knows, or has a realistic expectation, that Beth’s work at the temporary location will be for more than one year, changes are needed to the tax treatment of Beth’s travel expenses. Only the travel expenses incurred prior to the extension in August can be reimbursed tax-free; travel expenses incurred and reimbursed after the extension are taxable compensation.
When an employee’s residence and regular workplace are in the same geographic location and the employee is away on a temporary assignment, the employee will often return to the residence for weekends, holidays, etc. Expenses associated with travel while enroute to and from the residence can be paid or reimbursed by an employer tax-free, but only up to the amount that the employee would have incurred if the employee had remained at the temporary workplace instead of traveling home.
Travel to a temporary workplace – Special situations
In order for an employer to treat its payment or reimbursement of travel expenses as tax-free rather than as taxable compensation, the employee’s ties to the regular workplace must be maintained. The employee must expect to return to the regular workplace after the assignment, and actually work in the regular workplace long enough or regularly enough that it remains the employee’s tax home. Special situations arise when an employee’s assignment includes recurring travel to a temporary workplace, continuous temporary workplaces, and breaks in assignments to temporary workplaces.
- Recurring travel to a temporary workplace. Although the IRS has not published formal guidance which can be relied on, it has addressed situations where an employee has a regular workplace and a temporary workplace to which the employee expects to travel over more than one year, but only on a sporadic and infrequent basis. Under the IRS guidance, if an employee’s travel to a temporary workplace is (1) sporadic and infrequent, and (2) does not exceed 35 business days for the year, the travel is temporary even though it occurs in more than one year. Consequently, the expenses can be paid or reimbursed by an employer on a tax-free basis as temporary business travel.
Example: Stephanie works in Location A but will travel on an as-needed basis to Location B over the next three years. If Stephanie’s travel to Location B is infrequent and sporadic and does not exceed 35 business days a year, her travel to Location B each year can be reimbursed by her employer on a tax-free basis as temporary business travel.
- Continuous temporary workplaces. Sometimes an employee does not have a regular workplace but instead has a series of temporary workplaces. If the employee’s residence cannot qualify as his or her tax home under a three-factor test developed by the IRS, the employee is considered to have no tax home and is “itinerant” for travel reimbursement purposes. In this case, travel expenses paid by the employer generally would be taxable income to the employee.
Example: Patrick originally worked in Location A, but his employer sends him to Location B for eleven months, then assigns Patrick to Location C for another eight months. Patrick will be sent to Location D after Location C with no expectation of returning to Location A. Patrick does not maintain a residence in Location A. Travel expenses paid to Patrick by his employer will likely be taxable income to him.
- Breaks between temporary workplaces. In an internal memorandum, the IRS addresses the outcome when an employee has a break in assignments to temporary workplaces. When applying the one-year rule, the IRS notes that a break of three weeks or less is not enough to prevent aggregation of the assignments, but a break of at least seven months would be. Some companies choose to not aggregate assignments when the breaks are shorter than seven months but are considerably longer than three weeks, given the lack of substantive guidance from the IRS on this issue.
Example: Don’s regular workplace is in Location A. Don’s employer sends him to Location B for ten months, back to Location A for eight months, and then to Location B again for four months. Although Don’s time in Location B totals 14 months, since the assignments there are separated by a break of at least seven months, they are not aggregated for purposes of applying the one-year rule. Consequently, the travel expenses associated with each separate assignment to Location B can be reimbursed by the employer on a tax-free basis as temporary business travel since each assignment lasted less than a year.
The tax rules regarding business travel are complex and the tax treatment can vary based on the facts of a situation. Employers must carefully analyze business travel arrangements to determine whether travel expenses that they pay or reimburse are taxable or nontaxable to employees.