Q&A: When Ministers Fail to File

Our pastor has not filed a tax return in years—what should we do?

We just learned that our youth pastor has not filed a tax return since graduating from seminary seven years ago. What should we do?

Unfortunately, this is a common problem for ministers, and the reason is simple—churches are not required to withhold either income taxes or Social Security taxes from the wages of ministers who are performing ministerial services. This is due to the fact that: (1) ministers are classified as self-employed by the tax code for Social Security (so they pay the self-employment tax in lieu of having Social Security and Medicare taxes withheld from their wages by their employing church), and (2) the tax code exempts the wages of ministers from income tax withholding.

Unless they elect voluntary tax withholding, ministers are required to prepay their federal income taxes and self-employment taxes using the estimated tax procedure. This requires the minister to estimate income taxes and self-employment taxes for the year, and to pay one-fourth of this amount on each of the following four dates: April 15, June 15, September 15, and the following January 15.

The problem is that few seminaries inform ministerial students of their obligation to prepay their taxes using the estimated tax procedure. Many new ministers assume that their church will operate like a secular employer and withhold these taxes. When they realize that nothing is being withheld, they may rationalize their failure to pay taxes or file tax returns (e.g., “ministers must be exempt from taxes,” “I probably am not earning enough to trigger withholding”). This leads to nonpayment of taxes, and in many cases to a failure to file a tax return.

In time, some of these ministers realize that they owe back taxes, but they are unsure how to proceed. Some fear imprisonment. What should be done? Consider the following nine points.

  1. If a tax return is not filed by the due date (including extensions), a taxpayer may be subject to the “failure to file” penalty, unless reasonable cause exists.
  2. Taxpayers who did not pay their tax liability in full by the due date of the return (excluding extensions) may also be subject to the “failure to pay” penalty, unless reasonable cause exists.
  3. Interest is charged on taxes not paid by the due date. Interest is also charged on penalties.
  4. Ministers who have not filed one or more tax returns should consult with a CPA or tax attorney to determine if taxes were owed, and if so, to discuss options.
  5. Taxpayers who owe taxes, but are financially unable to pay them, may qualify for assistance in making payments through either an installment agreement or an offer in compromise. Discuss these options with your tax adviser.
  6. There is no penalty for failure to file if you are due a refund. But, if you want to file a return or otherwise claim a refund, you risk losing a refund altogether. A return claiming a refund would have to be filed within three years of its due date for a refund to be allowed.
  7. After the expiration of the three-year window, the refund statute prevents the issuance of a refund check and the application of any credits, including overpayments of estimated or withholding taxes, to other tax years that are underpaid.
  8. The statute of limitations for the IRS to assess and collect any outstanding balances does not start until a return has been filed. In other words, there is no statute of limitations for assessing and collecting the tax if no return has been filed.
  9. Church leaders should discuss tax filing requirements with every new minister, especially those who are recent seminary graduates. How do they plan on paying their income taxes and self-employment taxes? Through voluntary withholding? The estimated tax procedure? If the latter, provide them with a current copy of IRS Form 1040-ES (including the instructions). This is the form that is used to compute estimated taxes. It also includes payment vouchers that are used with each quarterly tax payment.
Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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