Tax Update: IRS Ruling Affects Automatic Gratuities

October 15, 2012, by Tamara B. Pow

Whether it is a group lunch to welcome a new employee to our law firm, a birthday dinner for family, or Moms' Night Out with friends, I often find myself enjoying Silicon Valley restaurants from San Jose to Palo Alto with a group of six or more. It is not uncommon to have the restaurant automatically add the gratuity, which is usually 18%, to our bill. This has always bothered me - not because I have a problem with paying the 18% (I often tip more than that), but because it is sometimes not obvious on the bill, and they still provide the blank line for you to add a tip, as if they are trying to trick people into double-tipping. Well, if you do not like the automatic 18% gratuity added to your bill, you will be happy to hear about a recent IRS ruling (Revenue Ruling 2012-18, June 25, 2012). This ruling clarifies the definition of tips verses service charges, each of which is treated differently for tax purposes. The result will likely be the end of automatic gratuities.

The IRS ruling states:
"The employer's characterization of a payment as a "tip" is not determinative. For example, an employer may characterize a payment as a tip, when in fact the payment is a service charge. The criteria of Rev. Rul. 59-252, 1959-2 C.B. 215, should be applied to determine whether a payment made in the course of employment is a tip or non-tip wages under section 3121 of the Code. The revenue ruling provides that the absence of any of the following factors creates a doubt as to whether a payment is a tip and indicates that the payment may be a service charge: (1) the payment must be made free from compulsion; (2) the customer must have the unrestricted right to determine the amount; (3) the payment should not be the subject of negotiation or dictated by employer policy; and (4) generally, the customer has the right to determine who receives the payment. All of the surrounding facts and circumstances must be considered. For example, Rev. Rul. 59-252 holds that the payment of a fixed charge imposed by a banquet hall that is distributed to the employees who render services (e.g., waiter, busser, and bartender) is a service charge and not a tip. Thus, to the extent any portion of a service charge paid by a customer is distributed to an employee it is wages for FICA tax purposes."

This definition may cause several different tax and reporting issues for restaurants, including:

- Restaurants can benefit from applying a general business credit toward employer side Medicare and Social Security taxes on tip earnings, which would be lost if these tips are considered service charges.
- Services charges will have to be reported as wages, affecting overtime rates.
- Services charges would be included in the restaurants calculation of Gross Receipts.
- Restaurants could choose to keep the service charge rather than pay it to employees.

So, next time you go out to eat with a large party, take a closer look at the check when it comes. I am guessing the automatic gratuities will soon change to something like a "suggested tip amount."

The information appearing in this article does not constitute legal advice or opinion. Such advice and opinion are provided by the firm only upon engagement with respect to specific factual situations. Specific questions relating to this article should be addressed directly to the author.