Understanding Fringe Benefits

By Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow · November 20, 2023 · 5 minute read

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Understanding Fringe Benefits

Who doesn’t like a little something extra? While there are some benefits your employer is required to provide you, they may also give you additional perks in the form of what are known as “fringe benefits.”

Here’s a look at some examples of fringe benefits, how they work, and whether they’re taxable.

What Are Fringe Benefits?

Typically, employers compensate their employees with a traditional paycheck and some additional benefits that they must provide, such as workers’ compensation coverage or unemployment.

But in an effort to keep workers happy, loyal, and motivated — attract new talent — many organizations also offer fringe benefits such as health insurance, childcare assistance, and employee stock options. These extras are above and beyond a regular paycheck and are often included in a hiring package.

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Common Fringe Benefits

Here’s a look at some common fringe benefits:

•  Accident and health benefits: Provides help with health-related costs not covered by your traditional insurance plan.

•  Athletic facilities: Provides access to on- and off-site athletic and gym facilities.

•  Dependent care assistance: Helps you pay for some care-related expenses for qualifying dependents, including children, a disabled spouse or legally dependent parents.

•  Adoption assistance: Provides payment and reimbursement for expenses related to adopting a child.

•  Employee stock options: Gives employees the chance to buy a certain amount of company stock at a specified price and by a certain time.

•  Group-term life insurance coverage: Allows employers to provide their employees with up to $50,000 in tax-free insurance. Coverage is traditionally 1-2x salary, where the first $50,000 is received tax-free, then any additional coverage is taxed.

•  Health savings accounts (HSAs): Provides tax-advantaged savings accounts for employees enrolled in high-deductible health plans. These accounts may receive contributions by the employer or simply be funded on a pre-tax basis by the employee to help them pay for dental and health care costs.

•  Transportation and commuting benefits: Helps employees get to and from work, such as through the use of a company vehicle. Employees may also be able to have qualified transportation costs taken from their pre-tax pay, which reduces their taxable income.

•  Tuition reduction: Allows employers to chip in for the cost of tuition to educate an employee and sometimes their spouse or children.

•  Meals: Provides employees with free on-site food and snacks.

For a more complete list of fringe benefits, check out IRS Publication 15-B .

Are Fringe Benefits Taxable?

Generally speaking, most fringe benefits are subject to employment taxes. The taxes are taken out of your paycheck and reported on your annual tax return. (If you’re a contractor, you’ll typically report fringe benefits on a Form 1099-MISC. If you’re a non-employee, fringe benefits are not subject to employment tax.)

That said, the IRS does consider some fringe benefits nontaxable. This means they’re not subject to federal income tax withholding, Social Security, Medicare, or federal unemployment tax, nor must they be reported on your tax return. Often, in order for a fringe benefit to avoid being taxed, certain qualifications must be met.

Here are some extra perks that are considered nontaxable (the full list is available on the IRS’ site:

•   Retirement planning services

•   Adoption assistance

•   Meals and snacks (If certain conditions are met)

•   Health insurance (up to a certain dollar amount)

•   Group-term life insurance (up to a certain amount of coverage)

•   Commuting or transportation benefits

•   Dependent care assistance (up to a certain amount)

•   Awards given for achievements

Tax-Advantaged Fringe Benefits

Some fringe benefits allow employees to direct a certain amount of funds pretax toward qualified accounts and expenses, which can lower their taxable income.

These tax-advantaged benefits are (somewhat oddly) known as “cafeteria plans,” because they allow employees to select the benefits they want. You must be permitted to choose from at least one taxable benefit, like cash, and one qualified benefit. Examples of qualified benefits include:

•  401(k) plans

•  Accident and health benefits, excluding Archer medical savings accounts and long-term care insurance.

•  Adoption assistance

•  Dependent care assistance

•  Group-term life insurance coverage

•  HSAs (distributions from HSAs can be used to purchase long-term care coverage.)

There are, predictably, a few more nuanced rules about cafeteria plans and employee tax treatment. While most regular employees receive normal tax treatment, other employees or contractors may not be treated as such for cafeteria plans.

If you have tax-related questions about fringe benefits, it might be a good idea to consult your attorney or preferred tax specialist.

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Planning Around Fringe Benefits

Employers typically offer fringe benefits to make the work environment better for the people who currently work there and more desirable for prospective employees.

Some benefits may hold a lot of appeal. For example, 401(k)s are a powerful tool for saving for your retirement. But others may be less appealing. For instance, you may decide you don’t want to use FSAs, which often restrict how much you can contribute and when you have to spend the funds.

It’s common to choose which fringe benefits you want when you’re starting a new job and filling out your initial paperwork. However, many companies will allow you to go back and make changes if you decide later that some choices aren’t right for you.

The Takeaway

Fringe benefits can run the gamut from use of the company car to adoption assistance to employee stock options (to name just a few examples). These extra perks are in addition to your paycheck and can be a powerful way to keep workers happy and loyal while also attracting new talent.

Generally speaking, most fringe benefits are taxable, though some — like retirement planning assistance, athletic facilities, and on-site meals and snacks — are not. Some fringe benefits will even allow you to direct a portion of funds pretax toward qualified accounts and expenses, which can help lower your taxable income.

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Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

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