I love having my 18-year-old daughter work in my law firm.  She’s smart and motivated.  She gets to see law in action.  She’s done wonders for my website, and she gets the mail out.

She keeps a timesheet.  I pay her through a payroll company, which withholds funds for income and social security taxes, among other deductions.

Not every employer is as honest and real-world as I am about the employment relation with a child.  Hiring your child is perfectly legal, in fact, I encourage it, but it must be done carefully and transparently.  Some parents mistakenly believe that if they take some of their income and pay a child, they may take a deduction on the payment to the child and the child will pay tax at a lower marginal rate than the parent: a seeming win-win. Not so.

The IRS frowns on these schemes. The latest person to fall foul of the rules is a Ms. Patricia Diane Ross, who took her case to the Tax Court and lost: T.C. Summary Opinion 2014-68.

Ms. Ross owned a Schedule C business, Ross Professional Services, LLC, that helped government agencies staff their operations.  She had three children, ages 8 through 15.  The children, according to Ms. Ross, shredded paper, stuffed envelopes, copied, sorted checks, filed documents, put out the trash, carried equipment, and helped her shop for supplies. For these tasks, she paid the children.  But she made some mistakes that came back to haunt her:

  1. She paid the children in pizza.  Rather than give the children a paycheck, she claimed she kept a ledger of how much they had earned and deducted the cost of their restaurant meals and a tutoring/play activity service from that ledger.  These expenses sounded to the IRS and the Tax Court judge more like the regular kind of a support that a parent is expected to give to her children.

When I represented the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, I came across a family that paid their minor children a very regular wage: $5,000 twice a year, two days before the children’s private tuition bill was due.  The tuition bill got paid out of the children’s accounts.

Lesson one: if you employ your children, pay them in money rather than support.

  1. She did not pay a regular hourly wage.  Dividing “wages” paid by the hours Ms. Ross reported for each kid resulted in an hourly wage varying from $4 to $30 with little correlation between the child’s age, skill, or task, and the wage paid.

Lesson two: if you hire your child, keep good timesheets and pay a regular wage.

  1. She did not withhold Federal income tax or other deductions, saying that the children did not need to file tax returns.  But anyone who makes more than the standard deduction ($6,200) plus the exemption amount must file a tax return.  When the child is being claimed as a deduction on Mom’s tax return, the exemption amount is zero.

Lesson three: treat your employed child as a real employee subject to withholding.

  1. The children got paid for chores: “the activities performed by petitioner’s children seem analogous to . . . washing windows, cleaning screens; shoveling snow; moving grass; tending shrubs, trees, and underbrush; assembling papers; picking up mail.”  The Court found these activities sounded more like parental training and discipline, not services performed by an employee for an employer.

Lesson four: pay your children only for tasks that advance the business, not for tasks that advance the household.

  1. She did not give the children their own bank accounts.  Well, the children actually had bank accounts about 200 miles away (where their father lives?), but Ms. Ross said she was too busy to open local accounts for them.  Thus, she said, it was “more convenient” to pay for things as the children directed her to, matching spending against their “earnings.”  It does not appear that the judge found this explanation convincing.

Lesson five: give your employed children real accounts in a real bank.

I am pleased to say that, if the IRS were to audit my law firm, it would find that my daughter’s earnings are real earnings and a real deduction from the income I collect.