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Although both federally required IRS tax forms, the W-2 vs. W-4 are inherently different. The W-4 informs employers of the appropriate tax withholding amount to be taken from an employee’s paycheck. The W-2, on the other hand, is a report generated by an employer that details an employee’s earnings and tax withholdings for the given tax year.
As a small business owner, your responsibilities are endless—ranging from accounting tasks to onboarding employees to managing business plans and day-to-day operations. With all of these obligations on your plate, it can be difficult to remember the differences between the various IRS tax forms, especially when they have similar naming conventions, like the W-2 vs. W-4.
Both as a business owner and a professional, there’s no doubt you’ve been exposed to the W-2 and W-4 forms, as they’re each federally required for tax purposes. Even so, you may still find yourself asking: What is a W-2 vs. a W-4? This guide is here to help. We’ll compare the W-2 vs. W-4 forms, explaining not only the core differences between the two, but also everything you need to know about how to fill them out correctly for your business.
Before we break down the W-2 vs. W-4 form differences, it’s important to briefly explain the basics of these two forms. Both the W-2 and W-4 are IRS tax forms that can be found online. The W-2 and W-4 must be filled out for each one of your employees and can be considered part of HR for your business, as well as your accounting and payroll processes.
The W-4 is also known as the employee’s withholding allowance certificate, meaning this form dictates the federal income tax that you will withhold from your employee’s pay. Each employee should correctly complete a W-4 on their first day of employment (or at the very least, before their first paycheck) and update it annually if their personal or financial situation changes. Once your employee has completed their W-4, you will use the information provided to calculate payroll—withholding the correct federal tax amount each time you run payroll and pay your employees.
The IRS refers to the W-2 form, on the other hand, as a wage and tax statement. W-2 forms are filed annually by employers for each of their employees and indicate the employee’s gross earnings, as well as their deductions for income, social security or Medicare taxes, childcare, and retirement savings. Employees use their W-2 forms to file their annual tax return. W-2 forms can be filed electronically or completed manually and mailed to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Many payroll or accounting software platforms will assist with W-2 filings.
Now that we know a little more about these two IRS forms, let’s break down the core differences of the W-2 vs. W-4 and explain how they relate to your business.
Despite their similar names, when it comes down to it, W-2 and W-4 forms have distinctly unique purposes. The W-4 form is used to inform you, as an employer, the necessary amount to deduct from your employee’s paycheck for taxes. The W-2 form, on the other hand, is an annual report—detailing for the employee (as well as the IRS) their gross pay and tax deductions.
Another main difference between the W-2 vs. W-4 is who actually completes the form. The W-4, as we’ll further explain later, is filled out by your employees. Each employee fills out their personal information and withholding allowances on the W-4. As an employer, you only need to fill out part of the W-4 if you’re using the document to fulfill state new hire reporting requirements. For the W-2, on the other hand, you are responsible for completing this form. Based on your payroll data from the year, you complete a W-2 for each of your employees.
As we briefly mentioned earlier, the W-4 form should be filled out as part of an employee’s new hire paperwork. Since the W-4 will determine the amount of tax deductions withheld from an employee’s paycheck, they should complete a W-4 before their first pay day. A W-2, on the other hand, is an annual form that reflects data from the previous year—a W-2 filed in January 2019, therefore, will reflect payroll and tax information from 2018. You must file a W-2 for every employee, every year, no later than January 31st. An employee only needs to complete a new W-4, on the other hand, if their personal or financial situation changes, and therefore, they want to adjust their deduction allowances.
The final important difference between the W-2 vs. W-4 is what you, as an employer, have to do with each form. Once your employee fills out their W-4, you should file it (either electronically or physically), but you do not need to submit it to the IRS or SSA. As we mentioned above, you only need to file a W-4 form if you’re using it to meet state new hire reporting requirements. Conversely, you must submit all W-2 forms to the SSA, either by mail or filing electronically. Additionally, you must also distribute completed W-2s to all of your employees each year, no later than January 31.
As you can see, although both the W-2 and W-4 are IRS tax forms, they’re inherently different—and yet, equally important. To ensure that you’re meeting both W-2 and W-4 requirements for your business, let’s go through how to find and fill out each form and tips to help simplify the process.
Once again, the W-4 form should be completed by each of your employees ideally on their first day of employment—and definitely before their first paycheck. The W-4 will inform you the amount of income taxes to deduct from your employees paychecks when you run payroll. You can find the most up-to-date W-4 form on the IRS website and print it out for your employee to complete. Some HR or payroll providers also allow your employees to complete their W-4 within the platform and automatically input the relevant data into your payroll system.
To accurately complete the W-4 form, your employee will need to provide:
Example of a blank W-4 form. Source: IRS.
To determine their appropriate number of allowances, your employee will complete the worksheet included with the W-4 form or use the IRS tax withholding calculator. Typically, higher allowance numbers mean less taxes are withheld. A single individual with no dependents with a number “1” allowance, therefore, will have more taxes withheld than a single parent with multiple dependents who is filing a number “4” allowance. An employee can claim exemption if they believe their income will result in no tax liability. It’s important to remember that you cannot tell your employees how to fill out their W-4, but can offer resources to help them determine their correct allowances. As we mentioned earlier, you only need to complete numbers 8-10 on the W-4 if you’ll be sending the form to your State’s Directory of New Hires to fulfill new hire reporting requirements.
Once an employee has completed their W-4, they’ll return it to you, and you will keep the form on-file for reference. You will also input the withholding information into your payroll system to ensure the correct amount of income tax is withheld from each paycheck. Your employee can update their W-4 as they see fit, in which case you should update your filing system with the new W-4 as well as adjust your payroll data accordingly.
Furthermore, depending on your specific state, your employees may also be required to file State W-4 tax forms. State W-4 forms will specify state income tax withholding and will follow the same procedure as the federal W-4. You can refer to the government website in your state to confirm any state tax withholding form requirements.
As we mentioned, unlike the W-4, you, as the employer, are solely responsible for completing and filing W-2 forms. W-2s detail the gross pay and tax deductions for the respective year for each of your employees. As such, this form must be completed for each of your employees annually and filled with the SSA. The SSA recommends filing W-2s electronically, but you can physically file as well.
W-2s must be completed no later than January 31st for the previous year and distributed to your employees in addition to filing with the government. W-2 forms can be accessed on the IRS website. In many cases, your accountant or payroll administrator can help you with W-2 filings. Additionally, many payroll software platforms allow you to file W-2s through their system as well.
To complete the W-2 form for each of your employees, you will have to fill out:
Example of a blank W-2 form. Source: IRS.
The specific tax withholdings you complete will depend on your business and individual employees—dependent care benefits and retirement plans, for example, might not apply to every employee, and therefore might not apply to every W-2 you complete. Again, the IRS provides detailed instructions on how to complete each box within the W-2. Once you’ve completed all of your W-2 forms for your business, you’ll file them with the SSA and distribute them to your employees. It’s important to remember that you must file and provide a W-2 for every employee that worked for you during that tax year, even if they’re not currently employed by your business.
Additionally, you’ll want to remember that W-2s only need to be completed for employees and not for contractors. For 1099 contractors, on the other hand, you’ll file the 1099-MISC tax form. The 1099-MISC form is similar to a W-2 in that it reports the contractor’s income received and any tax withholdings you made for that individual. Like W-2s, 1099-MISC forms should be filed before January 31st and distributed to all of the independent contractors that worked for you within that tax year.
At the end of the day, although the W-2 and W-4 are different forms that serve different purposes, they both fall under the larger umbrella of business taxes—and therefore, it’s of the utmost importance that you meet the requirements for these forms. These tips will help you streamline your W-2 and W-4 processes, so that you’re not only completing the forms correctly, but in the most efficient way possible for your business.
At the end of the day, you will see both the W-2 and W-4 form again and again as you run your business, so it’s important to know the ways in which they’re different. Essentially, although they’re both tax-related forms, the W-4 informs you, as an employer, of the amount to withhold from your employee’s paycheck, while the W-2 reports an employee’s earnings and withholdings for a given year. This being said, however, you’ll want to make sure that both forms are completed correctly and within the appropriate time frame as dictated by the IRS. Utilizing a payroll software and consulting with a tax professional are both great ways to help your business optimize these processes and ensure that you’re clear on all your tax form requirements.