The Internal Revenue Code requires employers to withhold social security and federal excise taxes from their employees' wages. [§§ 3402(a), 3102(a).] The employer holds these monies in trust for the United States.§ 7501(a) [here]. Accordingly, courts often refer to the withheld amounts as “trust fund taxes”; these monies exist for the exclusive use of the government, not the employer. Payment of these trust fund taxes is not excused merely because as a matter of sound business judgment, the money was paid to suppliers in order to keep the corporation operating as a going concern – the government cannot be made an unwilling partner in a floundering business.
The Code assures compliance by the employer with its obligation to pay trust fund taxes by imposing personal liability on officers or agents of the employer responsible for the employer's decisions regarding withholding and payment of the taxes. Slodov v. United States, 436 U.S. 238 (1978). To that end, § 6672(a) [here] of the Code provides that “[a]ny person required to collect, truthfully account for, and pay over any tax . . . who willfully fails” to do so shall be personally liable for “a penalty equal to the total amount of the tax evaded, or not . . . paid over.” § 6672(a). Although labeled as a “penalty," § 6672 does not actually punish; rather, it brings to the government only the same amount to which it was entitled by way of the tax.
Personal liability for a corporation's trust fund taxes extends to any person who (1) is "responsible" for collection and payment of those taxes, and (2) "willfully fail[s]" to see that the taxes are paid.In addition to the TFRP which is a civil liability only, Section 7202, here, imposes a parallel criminal penalty for those individuals who are responsible within the employer organization to attend to the withholding, accounting for and paying over.
Failure to withhold, account for and pay over is a common phenomenon with businesses encountering cash flow difficulties. The person or persons within the organization who determine which creditors get paid rob Peter to pay Paul -- i.e., they divert the withheld tax [or deemed withheld] to other creditors (sometimes to themselves). In many, perhaps most of these cases, they intend only a temporary diversion -- hoping to keep the business afloat, steady the ship, and produce cash flow sufficient to pay the trust fund taxes and any penalties for delinquent reporting and payment. Sometimes (many times in the aggregate across the economy) the business goes under and the trust fund taxes are not paid. This sets up the potential for the TFRP and, in some of the more egregious cases, criminal liability under Section 7202.
Tax practitioners deal frequently with clients who are facing IRS action or potential action against them individually for their employer's nonpayment of trust fund penalties. Often clients will say that the potential civil liability for the TFRP is bad enough, but they certainly don't like the risk of criminal prosecution. I have had clients ask me if I can illustrate when conduct crosses the line from civil TFRP liability only into potential criminal prosecution.