Constructive Receipt Traps for Paid-Time-Off Plans

By Allen Tobin, J.D., New York City

Editor: Howard Wagner, CPA

Many employers offer paid-time-off (PTO) policies that allow employees to cash in some portion of their PTO when the balance reaches a certain level. Other employers offer to buy back unused vacation or PTO days from their employees. What is often overlooked in these situations is that the ability to convert unused PTO or sick days to cash constitutes constructive receipt and will subject the employees to taxes even if they do not receive any cash. Constructive receipt of these amounts can also cause payroll complexities for the employer.

The doctrine of constructive receipt is summarized in Regs. Sec. 1.451-2(a). Under the regulation, income not received in cash is constructively received by a cash-basis taxpayer in the tax year during which the income is credited to the taxpayer's account, set apart for the taxpayer, or otherwise made available so that the taxpayer may draw upon the income at any time, or so that the taxpayer could have drawn upon it during the tax year if notice of intention to withdraw had been given. However, income is not constructively received if the taxpayer's control of the income's receipt is subject to substantial limitations or restrictions.

In the case of a PTO plan that provides employees with the discretion to convert unused PTO days into cash, the IRS consistently has held that an employee is constructively in receipt of income as soon as the right to receive cash for the PTO becomes fixed (Letter Ruling 9009052). The same result should apply if the employer offers a one-time program to buy back unused PTO or sick days from its employees. When these plans are in place, employees will have W-2 income equal to the cash value that can be requested for the PTO or vacation accrual.

The application of this rule is illustrated by the following:

Example 1: The employees of a company accrue two days of PTO on the last day of each month. Once an employee's unused PTO balance reaches 15 days during the year, the employee has the option to be paid in cash for any PTO days in excess of 15. An employee with no prior PTO balance who was employed on Jan. 1 took seven PTO days in June. At the end of December, the employee has a PTO balance of 17 days (24 days earned less seven days used).

Because the PTO balance at the end of December exceeds 15 days, the employee is eligible for a cash payout for the two days earned on Dec. 31. Even though the employee has received no cash compensation for those two PTO days, the employer is required to include the cash value of those two days in that employee's taxable wage base on Dec. 31. The employer should withhold and remit payroll taxes for those two days of PTO for the pay period including Dec. 31. If this amount is not reported as W-2 wages until used, the employer will be subject to penalties for failure to properly withhold federal and state income taxes, Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes, Federal Unemployment Tax Act taxes, and State Unemployment Tax Act taxes. The complexity does not end for the employer if it properly reports as W-2 wages the two days of PTO in December, however.

Example 2: In January of year 2, the employee earns two additional days of PTO and resigns on Jan. 31. Upon the employee's resignation, the company pays out 19 days of PTO, the 17 carried over from year 1 and the two days earned at the end of January of year 2.

Because the two days earned in December of year 1 were reported as W-2 wages in year 1, the company's payroll system will need to recognize that fact so those amounts are not treated as W-2 wages again in year 2 when they are paid out. If the employer's plan allows employees to make an election before the year in which the PTO is earned to receive excess PTO in cash, the excess PTO will not be taxable to the employee until it is paid in cash or otherwise made available.

In Letter Ruling 200130015, a municipality entered into a collective bargaining agreement with certain employees allowing them to cash out some excess vacation hours prior to separation from service. Under the plan, an employee would have an opportunity to elect irrevocably at any time on or before Dec. 31 of each year to receive cash for part or all of the amount of vacation hours that would otherwise accrue in the subsequent year. The letter ruling concluded that this arrangement did not constitute constructive receipt, as the election was made before the employee's provision of services giving rise to the PTO.

Businesses should review their PTO plans to make sure there are no constructive receipt issues. They also should review their payroll systems to make sure the appropriate amounts are reported when constructive receipt occurs, both upon constructive receipt and when the amounts are later paid.


Howard Wagner is a director with Crowe Horwath LLP in Louisville, Ky.

For additional information about these items, contact Mr. Wagner at 502-420-4567 or

Unless otherwise noted, contributors are members of or associated with Crowe Horwath LLP.

Tax Insider Articles


Business meal deductions after the TCJA

This article discusses the history of the deduction of business meal expenses and the new rules under the TCJA and the regulations and provides a framework for documenting and substantiating the deduction.


Quirks spurred by COVID-19 tax relief

This article discusses some procedural and administrative quirks that have emerged with the new tax legislative, regulatory, and procedural guidance related to COVID-19.