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Accountable vs. Nonaccountable Professional Expense Reimbursement Plans

Question:

What is the difference between an accountable and nonaccountable professional expense reimbursement plan? If a pastor's church advances him more than his actual expenses, can he keep the excess and simply report it as additional taxable income?

Answer:

Some churches have set up professional expense reimbursement plans for their pastors that are not in compliance with the Internal Revenue Code. For example, a church includes $100 per month in its budget to advance to the pastor for his ministry expenses. The church requires no substantiation, but assumes the pastor has at least that much in unreimbursed expenses. Therefore, the church does not report theses advances as taxable income. This procedure is incorrect.

Most pastors understand their duty to use these funds for church purposes. Some believe if they do not incur sufficient tax deductible expenses, they are permitted to report the excess advances as taxable income and use the undocumented monies for personal purposes. Revenue Proc. 2019-46 issued effective Nov. 14, 2019, says that these arrangements, which the IRS has titled "Nonaccountable plans," are subject to very different tax treatment than simply reporting the excess as income.

According to Revenue Procedure 2019-46, "an arrangement is not treated as a reimbursement or other expense allowance arrangement if it (1) does not require the employee to substantiate the expenses or (2) allows the employee to retain any amount in excess of the substantiated expenses covered under the arrangement."

If an arrangement fails one of these tests, all the amounts paid under the arrangement are treated as paid under a nonaccounable plan and are included in the employee's gross income, reported as compensation on Form W-2.

Under a nonaccountable arrangement, two consequences arise:
  1. To the church - the church must report the full amount of advances as taxable income on the pastor's Form W-2.
  2. To the pastor - the pastor must report this amount as taxable income with no ability to reduce his taxable income by his legitimate unreimbursed employee business expenses (per the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017). However, the pastor may be able to reduce his self-employment tax obligation.
To avoid these consequences, churches should consider the following two solutions:
  1. Require the pastor to return any unused funds and document all expenses within a reasonable period of time (Internal Revenue Reg. 1.62-2(g)(2)(i) offers a safe harbor of 60 days that will not be disputed by the IRS).
  2. Only cover ministerial expenses on a reimbursement basis, not as an advance allowance. In receiving the proper documentation, then and only then does the church reimburse the pastor.
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