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Common Payroll Mistakes & How To Avoid Them

  • Payroll
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 03/30/2022

Business owner going through weekly payroll

Table of Contents

Small-business owners striving for cost efficiencies may choose to do payroll themselves. However, this seemingly straightforward task of processing payroll can hold many potential pitfalls. Processing employee payroll can be time-consuming and highly complex. As company leaders cope with shifting payroll laws and tax regulations, staff turnover, and changing market demands, in addition to the many other responsibilities of running a business, there is risk of making payroll mistakes and having payroll discrepancies that can lead to violations and fines that may be damaging to a small company.

Common Payroll Mistakes

Whether it's a dedicated employee or the owner, those who handle payroll on their own face a myriad of risks.

Here are 10 potential payroll and payroll tax mistakes that are important to avoid:

  1. Filing late: The IRS stipulates a due date for depositing payroll taxes. Failing to file on time could bring a 15 percent failure-to-deposit penalty. A late payroll tax return also incurs fines. For each partial or total month that a return is not filed, you can receive a 0.5 percent penalty, based on your unpaid tax bill.
  2. Errors on tax forms: Slip-ups on tax forms may cause you to remit too much or too little in payroll taxes. Mistakes may also impact reconcilement of W-2s with year-end tax returns. Before you submit your return, double-check your figures, re-verify totals, ensure amounts are entered on the correct lines, make certain each line item coincides with your financial statements and payroll reports, and be sure to sign your return.
  3. Submitting incorrect amounts: The IRS can penalize you for submitting the wrong amount of payroll tax. However, the agency may forgive firms for first-time mistakes, or for errors arising from a reasonable cause rather than willful neglect when it comes to payroll. Penalties — ranging from 2 percent to 10 percent of total payroll — start accruing on the due date of your payroll taxes.
  4. Misclassifying employees: Your workers can be categorized as independent contractors. Misclassifying employees as independent contractors will result in unpaid payroll taxes. Remember, employees must fill out a Form W-4 so that you can deduct appropriate taxes; contractors paid $600 or more in a year must complete and submit a Form 1099, making them responsible for federal and state taxes. The determination of a worker's status as an employee or an independent contractor is critical to ensuring compliance with payroll tax requirements as well as wage and hour laws
  5. Getting employee details wrong: When processing payroll, inaccurate or outdated employee information may cause trouble with the IRS. Ensure you have the right data on your workforce such as:
    • Full names;
    • Employment start/termination dates;
    • Tax file numbers;
    • Dates of birth;
    • Current addresses; and
    • Payroll details, including hourly rates, gross wages, and employment periods.
  6. Processing payroll late or not at all: It happens, and it has consequences. Employees will be unhappy, and you may affect your company’s bottom line if you inadvertently overpay or underpay workers. Employee departures also pose risks, as some states set time limits on employers to provide final paychecks or incur penalties.
  7. Paying the wrong amount: If faulty information is initially entered into the payroll database, problems are bound to occur. Establish safeguards on your payroll system and double-check all employee information, tax withholding amounts, and payment information.
  8. Overlooking bank holidays: Know the holidays for which your bank closes and adjust your payroll-processing timelines accordingly.
  9. Depositing and reporting employment taxes incorrectly: After collecting payroll taxes from your employees and contributing your share, you must submit those taxes to federal, state, and local tax authorities. The IRS will assign you a deposit frequency based on past liability. .
  10. Not maintaining adequate payroll records: State and federal laws and/or regulations call for businesses to maintain specific employee records. Some local and state jurisdictions may have recordkeeping requirements that vary from federal requirements, so it's imperative that you're familiar with such requirements in the location(s) in which you do business.


Hidden Costs of Doing Payroll Yourself

Your time as a business owner is especially valuable. A 2018 survey by the National Small Business Association examined the time spent doing in-house payroll each month. Results showed that small business owners spent:

  • 1 - 2 hours: 27 percent
  • 3 - 5 hours: 20 percent
  • 6 - 10 hours: 14 percent
  • 11+ hours: 9 percent
  • No time at all: 31 percent

One-third of small U.S. firms spend $1,000 to $5,000 annually to do their own payroll. More than another third of companies spend more than $5,000 a year, with some companies reaching expenses as high as $40,000 or more.

There are still other pitfalls to avoid:

  • Complex administration: You must ensure that all employees complete a Form W-4 and any appropriate state tax forms, establish a payroll schedule, calculate and withhold taxes, remit payments to appropriate tax agencies, prepare and file tax forms, send Form W-2 to all employees, process checks, maintain payroll records, and know all taxes and laws that apply to your company. If you have independent contractors, you will also need to prepare and issue Form 1099s.
  • Potential fines for tax errors: As many as a third of all employers make payroll errors, and roughly 40 percent of small businesses incur an average of $845 each year in IRS penalties. More than half of all employment civil tax penalties at year-end occur because of failure to pay.

How To Avoid Common Payroll Errors

There are a number of things you can do to help avoid making mistakes while processing payroll for your business.

Understand Complex Tax Laws

Running a company means complying with various tax laws. The five general types of business levies are:

  • Income tax: All businesses except partnerships must file annual income tax returns. Partnerships file an information return. The form you use depends on the organizational structure of your business. The IRS requires companies to pay federal tax as they earn or receive income during the year.
  • Estimated tax: Those in business for themselves generally need to make estimated tax payments to cover income tax and other levies such as self-employment tax and alternative minimum tax. The IRS may impose penalties for not paying enough tax through withholding and estimated tax payments, or for late estimated tax payments.
  • Self-employment tax: Self-employment tax is a Social Security and Medicare tax primarily for individuals who work for themselves.
  • Employment tax: Businesses with employees have certain employment taxes and forms to file, including Social Security and Medicare taxes, federal income tax withholding, and federal unemployment tax.
  • Excise tax: Excises apply to certain types of businesses that make or sell particular products, use certain types of equipment or facilities, or receive payment for specific services.

Businesses must submit taxes to federal, state, and local authorities, at specified times and in designated forms. Such demands greatly amplify fiscal compliance and payroll administration obligations.

Calculation Reminders

There are other rules to follow based on what applies to your business. Generally, smaller businesses can't justify the expense of an employee dedicated to payroll issues. If this is the case for your business, you'll have to spend extra time educating yourself on payroll requirements to ensure compliance. For example, if you're paying a mileage expense for employees based on IRS guidelines, verify the correct amount with the IRS. You'll also need to dedicate time to verifying that the forms you're filing for all payroll and tax purposes are the most recent version. If you are using an outdated version, it may get rejected and delay processing time.

With these and other considerations in mind, it's essential you stay up to date on national and state-related requirements around wage deductions and payroll.

Outsourcing Payroll

Evaluating the long-term costs of keeping payroll in-house can shed light on the possible efficiencies of using a payroll service provider. While the IRS publication Circular E, as well as state-level resources, can help you avoid some errors, professional help could save your business thousands of dollars in administrative costs, recouped time, and improved accuracy. Reputable payroll providers typically offer various add-on packages, so you only need to pay for the services relevant to your organization.


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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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