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How to Calculate Withholding Tax for a Small Business

Written by on October 17, 2022

If you’re a small business owner, it’s important to understand how withholding tax works. This article will explain everything you need to know in order to calculate withholding tax correctly for your business when managing your payroll.

We’ll define what withholding tax is, discuss why it’s important to calculate it correctly and go over how to do so. Additionally, we’ll cover the different withholding allowances that are possible, as well as a few tips when it comes to dealing with withholding tax.

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What is Withholding Tax?

As a small business, taxes and other accounting terms can be confusing and intimidating. But to put it simply, withholding tax is the portion of an employee’s paycheck that is set aside in order to pay income taxes as they earn money, instead of paying everything as a lump sum during tax season.

The amount that is withheld depends on a number of factors, including the employee’s filing status, their dependents and other living situation details, and their current wage rate.

It’s important to calculate withholding tax correctly since it affects how much money your employee will take home each pay period. If too little tax is withheld, the employee may owe money to the IRS come tax time. On the other hand, if too much tax is withheld, they will get a refund eventually, but they may have difficulty paying their bills throughout the year.

Steps to Calculate Withholding Tax

To calculate your employees’ withholding tax, we’ll go through a number of simple but important steps below:

Step 1:  Study your employee’s Form W-4.

The first step in calculating withholding tax is to review your employee’s Form W-4, which they should have filled out when they started working for your business. This contains important information regarding their filing status and possible adjustments.

There are five possible filing statuses:

  • single
  • married filing jointly
  • married filing separately
  • head of household
  • qualifying widow(er)

Withholding allowances have been removed since 2020, but with the updated W-4 form, your employee can still declare dependents, multiple jobs or a working spouse, and other adjustments. These will be taken into account when calculating their withholding tax.

Step 2: Gather your payroll details.

Of course, your payroll details will determine your employee’s income and therefore the amount to withhold for tax purposes.

You should have the following information on hand:

  • The employee’s name and Social Security number
  • The employee’s total or gross pay for the pay period
  • The frequency of the pay period (i.e., weekly, biweekly, or monthly)
  • The number of hours worked (if paid hourly)
  • Any deductions to be made from their paycheck, such as for health insurance or a retirement plan

With the above information, you can get started computing your employee’s withholding tax.

Step 3: Compute their withholding tax using the withholding tax tables.

Once you have your employee’s Form W-4 information, you can check out the federal income tax withholding tables in IRS Publication 15-T.

Based on the filing status, pay frequency, and other adjustments in Form W-4, you’ll be able to calculate their withholding tax.

Calculate your employees' withholding tax with their W-4 details. Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich
Calculate your employees’ withholding tax with their W-4 details. Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich

There are two methods for calculating withholding tax:

1. Wage Bracket Method

This simpler method to calculate withholding tax is the most straightforward. Based on the employee’s taxable wages, filing status, and payroll period, you can get the exact amount to withhold with no extra calculations needed.

For example, if your employee’s wage is $1,000 and they are the head of their household, you should withhold $70 for tax purposes.

However, this method has a wage bracket limit. If your employee exceeds this number, you may need to switch to the next method, below. You can verify if you need to use the next method by reducing your employee’s taxable wages by the number of allowances. If the result still exceeds the last taxable bracket, you can move on to the method below.

2. Percentage Method

This method is more complex and requires additional calculation, but has no limitations on the wage amount or adjustments. It’s applicable for all scenarios.

Like the Wage Bracket method, there is a set dollar amount, but there is a portion of the withholding tax that is percentage-based.

IRS Publication 15-T contains formulas for all filing statuses and all payroll periods, which will come into play when you calculate their withholding tax. A worksheet is available on the publication for easier computation. But in a nutshell, to calculate your employee’s withholding tax:

  1. Find the range your employee’s wage falls under (“At least X, but less than Y”) to get the tentative amount to withhold
  2. Using the Adjusted Wage from the worksheet, add a percentage of the excess

For most simple cases, the adjusted wage will be the same as their wages for the payroll period you are using. However, if their case is more complex, make sure you accomplish Step 1 in the worksheets to get to the adjusted wage amount.

If you’re manually computing your withholding tax for your small business, in most cases you are fine with going with the Wage Bracket Method. It’s simpler and less prone to errors and will be applicable for most cases.

Top Tips in Managing Withholding Tax

Trying to compute and manage your employees’ withholding tax can be stressful, but here are a few tips to make the process easier:

  • Make sure you’re withholding the correct amount of tax from each employee by reviewing their W-4 form carefully. The last thing you want is for your employees to be under or over-withheld come tax time.
  • Stay up to date on changes in tax law. The withholding tax tables can change over the years, and many people forget the changes about allowances done only last 2020. Not being aware of tax changes can result in you or your team hurrying to catch up on paperwork come tax time.
  • Remember that holidays, and new employees starting mid-week, can affect your payroll period.  This can in turn affect how much withholding tax is taken out of each paycheck.
  • If you have employees in different states, calculate the withholding tax separately for each state. While not all states will have specific state withholding tax rules, you should check if your business is affected.
  • Ensure your employees’ Form W-4 is updated regularly for your own records and tax computation purposes. They should update their form when major life changes occur such as marriage or if they gain dependents.
  • You might not need it yet, but when your business grows, you should look into automating processes like payroll and invoice management to free up your time to do more strategic tasks. There are many available payroll and accounting software available that can speed up your internal processes for you.

Final Thoughts

Calculating withholding tax can be a daunting task for small business owners, but it’s important to make sure you’re withholding the correct amount of tax from your employee’s paychecks.

By following the steps above and keeping good records, you can ensure that you’re withholding the right amount of tax from your employees and stay compliant with the IRS.

It’s also always a good idea to know how withholding tax is calculated, even if you have payroll software doing it for you.

Do you have any tips on calculating withholding tax for small businesses? Share them in the comments below!

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