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I’m Self-Employed. What Do I Need to Know About Taxes?

May 2020


Self-employed individuals, unlike employees, don’t have an employer withholding federal (and state, where applicable), Social Security or Medicare (FICA) taxes tax from their wages during the year.

They are not paid a wage; instead, a self-employed individual must keep a set of books showing income and expenses associated with their self-employed business that will allow them to determine their taxable profits (or losses). While an employer and an employee each pay half of the FICA taxes due on an employee’s wages, a self-employed person pays 100% of these taxes, termed the self-employment tax (SE tax), on his or her self-employment profit. If the individual has more than one self-employment activity, the net profits and losses from all of the self-employment activities are combined to determine the amount of the SE tax. However, two spouses have self-employment income, the couple cannot combine their SE incomes when figuring their individual SE tax.  

Estimated Taxes

Since a self-employed taxpayer doesn’t have taxes withheld on their self-employment income, they need to pay estimated taxes quarterly based upon their taxable profits. These estimated taxes are paid with IRS Form 1040-ES . In lieu of filing Form 1040-ES and sending a check to the U.S. Treasury, the payments can be made online through the IRS’s website or by using the government’s Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), which allows payments to be scheduled up to a year in advance. The payments are due April 15th, June 15th, September 15th, and January 15th. If the due date falls on a weekend day or legal holiday, the due date will be the next business day. (And if you didn’t notice, the second “quarter” is two months, and the third one is four months – one of the many quirks in our tax system!)

Self-Employment Tax

A self-employed taxpayer who has more than $400 in net profit from their self-employment must pay self-employment tax, which is made up of Social Security tax of 12.4% on the first $137,700 (2020) of profit from the business and a 2.9% Medicare tax on all of the profits. In addition, there is a 0.9% Medicare tax to the extent the profits exceed $200,000 for single taxpayers, $250,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly, and $125,000 for married taxpayers filing separately. Finally, half of the self-employment tax can be deducted from gross income.

If a self-employed taxpayer pre-pays less than 90% of his or her current year’s tax liability, including Social Security and Medicare taxes for the year, then the taxpayer can be subject to a penalty that assesses interest on underpayments by the quarter, unless the taxpayer meets the safe harbor provisions

Estimated-Tax Safe Harbors rather than having to determine their quarterly profits and estimate their income tax and SE tax liabilities, some self-employed individuals instead opt to use a quarterly safe-harbor-payments method allowed by the IRS, which avoids the underpayment penalty if used correctly. There are two safe harbors available:

1. 100% of the prior year’s tax liability paid evenly for each quarter, provided the prior year’s adjusted gross income was $150,000 or less ($75,000 if using the filing status of married filing separate).

2. 110% of the prior year’s tax liability paid evenly for each quarter if the prior year’s adjusted gross income was greater than $150,000 ($75,000 if filing married filing separate).
The underpayment penalty does not apply if the final amount due on an individual’s tax return is less than $1,000.

One thing to consider when deciding whether or not to use the safe harbor method is that because the safe harbor estimates are not based on the current year’s profits, a self-employed individual could be in for an unexpected substantial tax liability at tax time. Or, if their current year’s income is significantly less than it was in the prior year, they could be overpaying their current year tax and be eligible for a large refund when they file their current-year return. If an overpayment results, all or part of it can be applied to the next year’s estimated taxes, instead of the taxpayer receiving a refund payment.

Also remember that tax pre-payments are not just based on the self-employment income and must factor in all other taxable income, including investment income, retirement income, the self-employed individual’s wages from other work, and a spouse’s wages or self-employment income, as well as account for withholding from other sources.

1099-MISC and 1099-K

Generally, a self-employed individual keeps track of his or her own income but may also receive one or more 1099-MISC forms issued by a payor. If that income has already been accounted for in the business’s income records, it should not be included again. Beginning in 2021 for earnings received in 2020, Form 1099-NEC will be used in place of the 1099-MISC to report nonemployee compensation.

Self-employed individuals that take credit card payments for sales of their business products or services use third parties to settle the transaction and return payment to the self-employed individual. To combat fraud, the IRS requires all third-party network transactions to be reported on Form 1099-K if the amount is $20,000 or more and the number of transactions is 200 or more. Again, the sales should have already been included as income and should not be included a second time.

Others Subject to Self-Employment Tax

Besides self-employed individuals having to pay SE tax on their trade or business income, the SE tax also applies to other situations such as members of the clergy, partnership distributions, foreign self-employment income, agricultural co-op payments to retired farmers, director fees, and certain executors/administrators (fiduciaries). If you fall into any of these categories, please contact Cray Kaiser for more information.

Income Not Subject to Self-Employment Tax

Income from an occasional act or transaction, absent proof of efforts to continue those acts or transactions on a regular basis, isn’t income from self-employment subject to the self-employment tax. In addition, the following are some sources of income as well as individuals not subject to self-employment tax: a shareholder’s portion of an S corporation’s taxable income, fees for the services of a notary public, non-resident aliens, the fiduciary of an estate on an isolated basis, rents paid in crop shares, real estate rental income, statutory employees, a self-employed taxpayer’s child employee under the age of 18.

If you are self-employed and have any questions about your tax planning situation and opportunities, please don’t hesitate to contact RBI member Cray Kaiser.