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Part 1 of 5: Paying your employees
Part 2 of 5: What are payroll taxes?
Part 3 of 5: Paying taxes
Part 4 of 5: Payroll tax reporting and forms
Part 5 of 5: Recap
Frequently asked questions

Introduction to payroll and taxes

This document explains some of the basics of payroll processing and your obligations as an employer. Intuit payroll services are designed to help you with the entire payroll process.

There are three main things you need to do that are related to payroll:

  • Pay your employees: Calculate gross pay and taxes withheld each pay period.
  • Pay taxes: Pay taxes withheld from employees' paychecks as well as the tax liabilities you incur as an employer to the appropriate government agencies, such as the IRS or your state's department of revenue.
  • File tax forms: Forms must be processed every quarter. Even if you've paid everything you owe, you still have to file tax forms that report your liabilities. If you have QuickBooks Desktop Payroll, availability of the forms depend on the type of your subscription:
    • QuickBooks Desktop Payroll Basic - no tax forms available
    • QuickBooks Desktop Payroll Standard - federal forms
    • QuickBooks Desktop Payroll Enhanced - federal and state forms

Following is some common payroll terminology. For more details, see IRS Publication 15, Employer's Tax Guide.

Part 1 of 5: Paying your employees

Before your first payroll

For each employee, be sure to have them complete each of the following forms:

  • I-9
  • W-4
  • State W-4 (if applicable)
  • Direct deposit authorization (if applicable)

You will also need to report your newly hired employees to your state agency. This process is referred to as 'New Hire Reporting'. Contact your state for information on how to handle this and what form to complete.

Determine compensation types

You will need to determine the compensation types for each employee.

You will need to set the hourly rate for each employee. Most employers set an hourly rate by assessing the state and federal minimum wage limits, the average market rate for the job/role, and experience and education of an employee.

Salary wages are set amounts and the employee receives the same amount each paycheck. As a rule of thumb, determine the annual salary first, and then divide by the number of pay periods in the year to determine the salary amount for each paycheck. Salaried employee hours typically fluctuate, so there's no real way to determine their hours unless you're keeping track of their time through a time management system. If for any reason you need to determine their hourly rate, divide their annual salary by 2,080 (this amount is the average hours a person works in a year; 40 hours a week x 52 weeks = 2,080 hours).

Commission employees are paid by performance. Most often, these employees receive a percentage of their sales or are paid by number of products or services sold. Federal and state law require the employee to get paid at least the minimum wage, so if the employee's commission is low enough, they'll need to be paid and the difference to meet the minimum wage limits.

The minimum wage for tipped employees is much less than the minimum wage for hourly employees. This is because these employees receive tips as part of their overall compensation. Tips can either be collected through the paycheck if the tip is paid by a credit card, or can be collected directly from the employee if the tip is cash.

Other compensations
There are a variety of other ways to pay your employees. Be sure to work with your state, business, and/or accountant to determine what types of compensation are needed.

Part 2 of 5: What are payroll taxes?

Overview of payroll taxes

Payroll taxes are those taxes withheld from your employees' paychecks and those taxes you pay as an employer based on the wages you pay your employees. These taxes include the following:
  • Social security and Medicare
  • Federal and state unemployment
  • Personal income tax (federal and state)
  • Miscellaneous other state taxes
Most payroll taxes, such as income tax, apply to all earnings. However, some taxes have a wage cap, that is, the maximum annual earnings per employee that is subject to that tax. These caps can be adjusted by the governing agency (typically annually).
Summary of the most common payroll taxes:
Tax rate Who pays? Wage cap
Social security
6.2% (2013-2018)
6.2% ER (2013-2017)
Employee and employer  

$132,900 (2019)
$128,400 (2018)
$127,200 (2017)
$118,500 (2015-2016)
$117,000 (2014)
$113,700 (2013)

EE: 1.45-2.35% (2013-2018)
ER: 1.45% (2013-2017)
Employee and employer Unlimited
Personal income tax (PIT) Varies based on projected annual income Employee Unlimited
Federal unemployment (FUTA) 0.6% Employer $7,000
State unemployment insurance (SUI) Varies based on employer's experience rate Employer in all states; some states have employee contribution Varies by state

Social security and Medicare

Paid by both employers and employees. As an employer, you withhold the employee's part of the taxes and also pay the federally regulated amount for the company portion.

The tax rate (amount withheld) for social security is 6.2% and applies to both employees and employers. This is a tax with a wage cap, which means that the tax is calculated only up to a maximum dollar amount of wages per employee each year. For 2018, the wage cap for social security is $128,400.

The employee tax rate (amount withheld) for Medicare is 1.45% for most employees. The employee Medicare rate increases to 2.35% on wages over $200,000. The employer tax rate for Medicare tax is set at 1.45% regardless of wage amounts. There is no wage cap for Medicare tax, which means the tax is paid on all of the wages that the employee earns. (The exception is exempt wages see "Special Tax Exemptions" below.)

Income tax

The amount of federal income tax (FIT) withheld from employees' paychecks depends on their marital status, the number of withholding allowances (exemptions) they claim on Form W-4, pay frequency and their projected annual income. In addition, all but nine states have a personal income tax (PIT) (exceptions are Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming). It can be a flat tax rate (as in Illinois), regardless of projected income, or a graduated tax rate based on annual income, such as FIT. In some states, employees can also pay local tax (to cities, counties, or school districts) from their paycheck.

Form W-4: Reported by the employee

  • Filing status: The marital status that dictates which tax table is used to calculate income tax withholding. For federal income taxes, four filing status options are available: single, married filing jointly, head of household, and married filing separately.
  • Withholding allowances: Also called exemptions, withholding allowances reduce taxable income by a designated amount per allowance. The IRS updates allowance amounts periodically. Factors such as number of dependents influence how many allowances an employee can claim.
  • Additional amount to be withheld: Amount that is added to the income tax calculated for each paycheck. It is in addition to the amount of income tax withholding that is based on the employee's filing status and withholding allowances. An employee working multiple jobs might choose to have an additional amount withheld to compensate for understatement of annualized wages (and therefore understatement of his real tax rate) by each employer.
The W-4 form includes several worksheets to estimate the most accurate projection of tax liability. Some states have similar forms for state tax liability.

Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA)

The Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA), along with the state unemployment systems, provides for payments of unemployment compensation to workers who have lost their jobs. For 2016, 2017, and 2018, the effective FUTA tax rate is 6.0%. However, most employers qualify for the 5.4% state unemployment tax credit, which lowers the effective rate to 0.6%. The tax applies to the first $7,000 employers pay to each employee as wages during the year.
However, if any of your employees are exempt from State Unemployment Insurance (for example, they are Directors or Officers), your FUTA tax may be higher. Also, if your state has borrowed funds from the federal government to cover shortfalls in its unemployment insurance program, all employers in your state may be subject to additional tax liability at the end of the year to repay those loans. For more details, see 2016 Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) Credit Reductions..

State unemployment insurance (SUI)

The money that all states maintain as a reserve for unemployment funded through an unemployment insurance tax. In most cases, SUI is paid only by the employer. Employees in some states, such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, also contribute to SUI through their paychecks.
Most states have established a starting SUI rate for new employers. After a designated period of time, employers are assigned an experience rate, which can be higher or lower than the new employer rate, depending on the employer's reserve account balance. You receive a notice from the state if your rate changes.

Other payroll taxes

State disability insurance (SDI) or workers compensation are administered by some states as a tax collected through payroll. Many states also have a tax paid jointly with SUI that is used to fund job training programs.

Special tax exemptions

Some types of employees are exempt from one or more payroll taxes (they do not pay those taxes). For example, a minor working for a parent who is a sole proprietor does not have to pay social security, Medicare, or FUTA. In addition, certain portions of regular employees' wages might be exempt from one or more payroll taxes. For example, tax-sheltered or pretax insurance plans save both the employer and the employee money by exempting premium amounts from all federal taxes and some state taxes. Some fringe benefits, such as S-Corporation owners' health insurance, are also taxed differently from regular wages. If your company is a not-for-profit 501(c) (3) corporation, you do not pay any FUTA taxes regardless of who your employees are.

Intuit Online Payroll automatically handles the special taxability of certain wage types. If you have employees who are eligible for special tax exemptions, you can indicate this when you are setting up the employees in your account. Your accountant can help you determine whether you have employees in this category; however, most employees pay all payroll taxes.

If you have the QuickBooks Desktop Payroll subscription and have employees who are eligible for special tax exemptions, you can configure this when you are setting up the employees in your QuickBooks Desktop. Your accountant can help you determine whether you have employees in this category; however, most employees pay all payroll taxes.

Part 3 of 5: Paying taxes

As an employer, you remit taxes to the IRS and to your state agencies either by paying electronically or by using a form provided by the tax agency. Before examining the timing of tax deposit due dates or deposit frequency, let's look at some common payroll terms.

Constructive receipt

Rule that makes employers responsible for payroll taxes on the date they pay employees, regardless of when they did the work associated with that paycheck. If the employer pays employees only on Fridays, you only report a tax liability on Fridays, even if employees earn wages every day of the week. A common point of confusion is when work is performed in one tax period, but employees are paid in a different tax period. The IRS only tracks when employees are paid, not the span of time when the money is earned.
Example: Tom's Market pays employees every two weeks. Employees receive a paycheck on January 6, 2017, which covers work performed during the pay period December 19 and December 26 2016.
Question: In which month does the tax liability for this payroll fall?
Answer: Tom's payroll is considered part of his January 2017 tax liability, even though the pay period fell completely in December 2016.

Lookback period

A reference period used by the IRS to determine your federal tax payment due dates. The IRS evaluates your tax liability during this 12-month period and determines whether you are a monthly or a semiweekly depositor for the coming year. Most new employers are monthly depositors.
For 2017, the lookback period is July 1, 2015 - June 30, 2016. For 2018, the lookback period is July 1, 2016 - June 30, 2017. For 2019, the the lookback period is July 1, 2017 - June 30, 2018.

Deposit period

The span of time during which tax liabilities accumulate for each deposit due date.

Federal tax deposit schedules

The following deposit schedules apply to all federal taxes other than FUTA.
Monthly depositors: You are a federal monthly depositor in 2017 if your company's federal tax liability during the lookback period (7/1/15 through 6/30/16) was $50,000 or less. This is why all new employers are monthly depositors. Monthly depositors pay taxes for a given month by the 15th of the next month. For example, June taxes are due by July 15th; however, if the 15th falls on a weekend or federal holiday, the taxes are due the next banking day.
Semiweekly depositors: If your lookback liability is greater than $50,000, you are a semiweekly depositor. You pay taxes three banking days after the end of any semiweekly period in which you accrued a liability. The IRS divides the week into two periods:
  • Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday
  • Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday
Taxes accrued during the Wednesday through Friday period are due on the following Wednesday, and taxes accrued during the Saturday through Tuesday period are due on the following Friday. In some cases, when a federal holiday (such as July 4 or Christmas) occurs during the week, semiweekly depositors have an extra day to make their tax payment.
For even more info about deposit schedules, check out the IRS's publication about the ABC's of deposit schedules.

Exceptions to deposit schedule rules

There are three main exceptions to the monthly and semiweekly tax deposit requirements:

  • Next-day deposit rule: If you accrue $100,000, or more, in federal tax liability at any point during a deposit period, you must remit taxes on the next banking day. This can result from a single payroll, or it can result from multiple payrolls within a single deposit period (monthly or semiweekly). For example, if you are a monthly depositor and pay a one-time bonus to employees that results in more than $100,000 in liability on a single day, you must pay the amount due immediately. You also become a semiweekly depositor until your lookback liability falls below the $50,000 threshold, again.
  • Quarterly exception: If you owe less than $2,500 in federal taxes for a quarter, you can choose to pay when you file your taxes at the end of the quarter (instead of making deposits during the quarter). If you're not sure how much your business will grow, you should make more frequent deposits, because the IRS assesses penalties if you owe more than $2,500 at the end of a quarter and have not made tax deposits.
  • Annual exception: If the IRS has notified you in writing that you are a 944 filer, and your total annual federal tax liability is less than $2500, you can make your federal tax deposits annually. The 944 filing status is for very small employers who typically pay $4000 or less in annual wages.

Paying FUTA and SUI taxes

Unlike other federal taxes, FUTA taxes are paid on the last day of the month following the end of each quarter:
  • April 30 (for Q1)
  • July 31 (for Q2)
  • October 31 (for Q3)
  • January 31 (for Q4)
Note: If you accrue less than $500 of FUTA liability in a quarter, you do not need to make a deposit until the following quarter. If your liability remains under $500 for the entire year, you can make a single payment at the end of the year (on or before January 31).
SUI is paid once per quarter to your state. Intuit Online Payroll Enhanced also prompts you when you have a SUI payment due.

State withholding schedules

Like the IRS, states have established deposit schedules for paying income tax you've withheld from your employees' paychecks. When you register with the state revenue agency, they notify you of your state deposit schedule.

SUI taxes

Like FUTA, SUI taxes are remitted once a quarter, regardless of the employer's size. In addition, other taxes administered by a state's unemployment commission, such as Arizona's Job Training Tax or New York's Reemployment tax, tend to be paid jointly with the SUI tax on a quarterly schedule. In states such as Florida and Nevada, where there are no state taxes withheld from employees' wages, SUI is the only payroll tax employers pay, so all employers pay taxes quarterly.

Part 4 of 5: Payroll tax reporting and forms

Now that you've given all your employees accurate paychecks and paid all the payroll taxes you owe, you have one more responsibility: filing tax forms. This section provides an overview of the types of form filings required of all employers.

Federal forms

  • Form 941: Most employers file this tax form every quarter with the IRS. It compares federal payroll taxes owed with taxes paid during the quarter to determine whether your payments were timely and whether you have a balance due.
  • Form 944: Employers who have received written notice from the IRS can file Form 944 annually instead of Form 941 each quarter. Like Form 941, it reports wages and calculates federal payroll tax liability. Most 944 filers also pay taxes once a year.
  • Form 940: All employers who pay FUTA file this tax form at year end with the IRS. Like Form 941, it compares FUTA tax liability with FUTA tax payments to determine whether your deposits were timely and whether you have a balance due.
  • Form W-2: All employers provide Form W-2 to each employee at year end as an earnings record for income tax filing purposes. You are also responsible for filing Form W-2 with the Social Security Administration.

State forms

Wage reports: Reports wages paid to each employee for a given quarter. They are sometimes combined with a quarterly contribution report that calculates SUI tax owed and is typically accompanied by the SUI payment at quarter end. Most states require both a wage report and a contribution report each quarter, either as separate forms or as a combined form. Many states also require a quarterly reconciliation for state income tax.
Annual reconciliations: Some states require filing an annual reconciliation for income tax at the end of the year. This might or might not be accompanied by copies of employees' W-2s.
Cities, counties, and school districts that assess taxes might also require quarterly or annual forms, and might require copies of W-2 forms. Check with each agency to which you pay tax.

Part 5 of 5: Recap

Breakdown of a paycheck

Online Payroll

1. Gross pay
Gross pay is the amount owed to the employee without any deductions or taxes taken out.

  • For hourly employees: gross pay = hours x rate
  • For salary or commission employees: gross = flat amount (this amount is usually determined by figuring out the annual salary and then dividing it by the number of pay dates in a year)

2. Taxes
Employee-owed taxes are taken out of gross pay. These typically include federal income tax, Medicare, social security, and state income tax. As an employer, it's your responsibility to hold and pay these taxes on behalf of your employees. Employee-owed taxes come at no additional cost to you as an employer, as these amounts were already included in the expense for gross pay.

However, you are also liable for employer-owed taxes, which typically include federal and state unemployment, and your share of Medicare and social security. These are not included on a pay stub as these do not pertain to employees and they don't need to know about these expenses. You can find these amounts in your Tax Liability or Total Cost reports provided by Intuit payroll services. If you have the QuickBooks Desktop Payroll subscription, you can find these amounts under Pay Liabilities or Payroll Summary report in QuickBooks.

3. Deductions other than taxes
Typical deductions include health, vision, and dental insurance. These are mostly voluntary, but the employee could also have involuntary deductions, such as garnishments like child support.

4. Net pay
This is the employee's take home pay. At this point, all taxes and deductions have been taken out. The employee can cash their check to receive this amount, or if they're set up for direct deposit, this is the amount that will hit their bank account.

5. Pay period
This is the period of time the work was performed. Pay periods are typically weekly, every other week, or monthly.

6. Pay date
The pay date is the date the employee has their paycheck in their hands, or if they're set up for direct deposit, this is the date the funds will hit their account. The pay date is also the date that determines when tax amounts are due. Refer to the Constructive Receipt section above for more details about the importance of this date.

What to do after running payroll, what to do after every quarter, and what to do at year-end

Event After every payroll Every month Every quarter At year-end
Pay federal income tax, Medicare, and social security If you're a semi-weekly depositor, these taxes are due after every payroll If you're a monthly depositor, these taxes are due by the 15th of the following month
Pay state income tax If you're a semi-weekly depositor, these taxes are due after every payroll If you're a monthly depositor, these taxes are due by the 15th of the following month
Pay state unemployment State unemployment (SUI) taxes are due at the end of every quarter
Pay federal unemployment Federal unemployment (FUTA) taxes must be paid at the end of the quarter once the liability for the year exceeds $500. If this threshold is never met, these taxes are due at the end of the year. Federal unemployment (FUTA) taxes are due at the end of the year if the liability never reaches $500
File Form 941 File Form 941 at the end of every to reconcile your employee wages and federal taxes
File Form 944 If you are not a 941 filer, file Form 944 at the end of every to reconcile your employee wages and federal taxes
File state unemployment forms File your state unemployment form with your SUI payment
File quarterly state income tax forms File quarterly state forms at the end of every to reconcile your employee wages and state taxes
File Form W-2 File Form W-2 by the end of January
File annual state income tax forms Refer to Year-end annual form agency due dates (Tax year 2018) for state annual due dates
File Form 940 File Form 940 at the end of the year to reconcile FUTA

Frequently asked questions

Following are some of the most commonly asked questions we receive from new employers. If you have additional questions, please contact Payroll Support.

Do I need to register as an employer?

You must register with both the federal government and your state when you hire your first employee. When you register, you are assigned a federal Employer Identification Number (EIN) and usually, a state EIN. In some states, you register with both the state revenue agency and the unemployment insurance agency. The fastest way to register and receive a federal EIN is online.

How do I know how much to withhold?

Have employees fill out a Form W-4 to declare their status and allowances. As you set up each employee in Intuit payroll, enter this information. Intuit payroll services can now calculate withholding taxes. You can also withhold voluntary deductions, such as health insurance or retirement plans.

Is my contractor really an employee?

The amount of control the employer has over the worker determines whether or not the worker is an employee or an independent contractor. If the employer controls what must be done and how the work gets done, and supplies the tools to complete the work, then the worker is an employee. If the worker controls how the work is to be done, the worker is self-employed. Self-employed workers usually provide their own tools and have independent businesses serving multiple clients. For more information regarding whether a worker is an employee or a contractor, see IRS Publication 15, Employer's Tax Guide.

As the owner of a business, am I considered to be an employee?

The owner, sole proprietor, or partner in a small business does not earn wages and is not considered an employee (some LLC members and S-Corporation owners are also not employees). To confirm a worker's employment status, talk to your accountant or see IRS Publication 15, Employer's Tax Guide.

What is workers' compensation insurance and do I need it?

Workers' compensation is a state-administered program to pay for injuries that occur in the course of employment. Workers' compensation insurance is required for nearly all employers in all states. If you are a small business employer, consult your insurance broker.
It is very important that you have adequate workers' compensation insurance. Otherwise, if your employee is injured on the job, you can be personally liable, not only for the cost of medical treatment, but also for disability payments during the period in which the employee is unable to work.


Term Definition
Federal EIN or EAN A 9-digit number issued by the federal government that uniquely identifies an employer. A federal EIN is required on all forms that you (as the employer) file for an employee. Also known as an Employer Account Number or EAN.
Deposit schedule Tax agencies define when employers must deposit payroll taxes. New employers typically are assigned to a less frequent schedule. The IRS, for example, assigns new employers to a monthly schedule. State and local agencies define their own schedules and set their own thresholds.
Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) The federal social security and Medicare tax law. These taxes are paid by both employee and employer and are all remitted to the federal government at the same time.
FUTA taxes The federal unemployment tax (generally, 0.6% of gross wages if paid on time) paid by employers only; employees do not pay this tax.
Filing name The name under which you file your state and federal tax returns. The filing name of a small business is whatever you specified when you applied for your federal EIN. The government sent you a letter containing both your filing name and your EIN. Be sure you enter your filing name in Intuit Online Payroll exactly the way it appears on this letter from the government. Household employers: Your filing name is not necessarily your legal name.
Form I-9 Federal Form I-9 verifies the eligibility of individuals for employment. Employers must complete and keep on file an I-9 form for each employee. (You can print Form I-9. Go to Taxes & Forms. Your employee should provide the documents needed to verify eligibility. You are required to keep your employees' completed I-9 forms for your records.
Medicare tax Federal taxes for medical insurance. Currently, both employee and employer pay on all wages the employee earns.
Nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporations Nonprofit corporations that qualify under the federal 501(c)(3) provision of the tax code are exempt from FUTA and can be exempt from income taxes. Nonprofit organizations might be able to choose a reimbursable status for SUI. For more information, see IRS Publication 557, Tax Exempt Status for Your Organization.
Personal income tax wages All wages paid during the specified period that are subject to federal, state, or local personal income tax (PIT), even if no PIT was withheld (states might have other names or abbreviations for PIT, such as State Income Tax (SIT)).
Personal income tax withholding A payroll tax for a federal, state, county, or city. Local agencies can require an employer to withhold PIT from a household employee's wages.
Social security tax Federal taxes for old age, survivors, and disability insurance.
State disability insurance tax (SDI) A state payroll tax withheld from your employees' wages to provide benefit payments in case they are not able to work as a result of a non-occupational illness or injury. States set SDI rates.
State unemployment insurance (SUI) tax
A payroll tax used to pay benefits to workers who are unemployed and qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. Typically, a state has one rate for new employers and lower or higher rates for employers who have a track record for paying taxes and for claims. For example, the SUI tax rate for new employers in California is 3.4% for the first three years. In following years, the tax rate will change depending on
  • The average payroll for the previous three years
  • How much you paid in SUI taxes
  • How much money has been paid and charged to your SUI reserve account for unemployment insurance benefits for people who no longer work for you.
    Your rate can change based on the experience rate, which includes business climate factors as well as your own record and that of other employers. In some states, the SUI rate can change midyear.
Wage cap Some taxes are paid only up to a specific amount of yearly wages. For example, in 2013, the Social Security wage cap was $113,700. FUTA taxes are paid only on the first $7,000 earned annually by each employee. Not all taxes are wage-capped, and wage caps vary from tax to tax. Intuit Online Payroll accounts for all wage caps when calculating taxes. Agencies reevaluate wage caps annually and send you a notice when the cap changes.
Form W-2 Form W-2 is a federal form completed by employers to show an employee's total income and withholding for the year. Intuit Online Payroll creates the W-2 form for you, and then you file it with various tax agencies. You must give W-2 forms to all employees including terminated employees.
Form W-4
Form W-4 is a federal form completed by employees so the employer can withhold the correct FIT from the employee's paycheck.
We can provide you with W-4 forms.
Some states require the use of their own W-4 equivalent.