When Is the W-4 Deadline for Exemptions?
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Form W-4 Deadline for Exemptions Can Affect Your Payroll

Attention small business owners: The W-4 deadline is approaching. If any of your employees claimed an exemption from federal withholding last year, they’ll need to fill out a new Form W-4 by February 15 to continue the exemption.

What is the exemption?

Form W-4—the Employee’s Withholding Certificate—is one of the required documents new employees must fill out before you can run payroll for them. On this form, employees can determine federal income tax withholding. Employees can lower their income tax withholding by claiming dependents or filling out the deductions worksheet. An employee can also be completely exempt from FITW.

Employees can claim an exemption from federal withholding if they meet both of these conditions:

  1. The employee had the right to a refund of all federal income tax withheld because they had no tax liability last year.
  2. The employee expects a refund of all federal income tax withheld this year because they will have no tax liability.

Even if an employee meets these two qualifications, they cannot be exempt if they are claimed as a dependent on someone’s tax return, and the employee’s income is more than $1,050 including more than $350 of unearned income (e.g., interest).

Do W-4 forms expire?

Typically, a Form W-4 does not expire. You can continually use the information on an employee’s Form W-4 to calculate FITW. However, Form W-4 exempt status expires. If an employee claims exemption from withholding, they must fill out a new Form W-4 every year.

When an employee claims exemption from withholding, they only need to fill out select lines on Form W-4, which are specified in the instructions section of the form.

If the employee does not give you a new form by February 15, the employee’s current exemption from withholding expires on February 16.

What if the employee files a new exemption?

If the employee submits a new Form W-4 by the February 16 deadline, you must continue the exemption from FITW for the next year. This means you will not deduct any FITW from the employee’s paycheck.

What if the employee misses the Form W-4 deadline?

If the employee does not give you a new form by the Form W-4 deadline, they are no longer exempt from FITW.

Here’s what you should do:

  1. For the next payroll, you must use the employee’s last valid Form W-4 that had information before the employee claimed exemption. Use the information marked on this Form W-4 to calculate the employee’s FITW.
  2. Alternatively, you can deduct FITW from an employee’s wages at the standard withholding. You will have to use this method if you do not have a previous Form W-4 for the employee.

Example: When you first hired Jack in 2016, he gave you a Form W-4 claiming married with three dependents. In 2019, Jack gave you a new Form W-4 claiming exempt from FITW. Jack did not file a Form W-4 claiming exempt in 2020. You could use Jack’s previous Form W-4 and deduct his FITW as married with three deductions. Or, you could withhold at the standard level.

If an employee completes a new form to claim exemption from withholding after the Form W-4 deadline, you can change the employee’s payroll tax settings to reflect the exemption for future payrolls. But, do not refund the employee any taxes from when they did not have exempt status.

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This article was originally published 12/2/2014.

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