S Corporation Payroll: A Comprehensive Guide

Understanding S Corporations and Payroll

S corporations, or S corps, are a popular business structure in the United States due to their unique tax advantages. Unlike traditional corporations, S corps pass corporate income, losses, deductions, and credits directly to their shareholders for federal tax purposes. This structure helps avoid double taxation, where both the company and the shareholders would be taxed. However, running payroll in an S corporation payroll requires careful adherence to IRS guidelines to ensure compliance and optimize tax benefits.

How Do S Corporations Run Payroll?

Running payroll in an S corp involves several steps to ensure employees, including shareholder-employees, are compensated correctly and all tax obligations are met. Here’s a step-by-step guide to managing payroll for an S corporation:

  1. Set Up a Payroll System: Choose a reliable payroll service or software to manage payroll processes.
  2. Classify Employees Correctly: Ensure proper classification of workers as employees or independent contractors.
  3. Obtain Employer Identification Number (EIN): Secure an EIN from the IRS for tax reporting purposes.
  4. Collect Employee Information: Gather necessary details from employees, such as Social Security numbers and tax withholding forms (W-4).
  5. Determine Pay Periods: Establish regular pay periods (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly).
  6. Calculate Gross Pay: Compute employees’ gross pay based on hours worked or salaries.
  7. Withhold Taxes: Deduct federal, state, and local taxes, as well as Social Security and Medicare contributions.
  8. Pay Employees: Disburse net pay to employees via direct deposit or checks.
  9. File Payroll Taxes: Submit payroll tax forms and payments to federal, state, and local tax authorities.

How Do S Corp Owners Pay Themselves?

S corp owners, often referred to as shareholder-employees, must pay themselves a reasonable salary. This salary should reflect fair market value for the work performed and is subject to payroll taxes. Here’s how S corp owners should manage their compensation:

3.1 Set a Reasonable Salary

The IRS requires S corp owners to receive a reasonable salary that reflects the work they perform. This prevents owners from taking low salaries to avoid payroll taxes. To determine a reasonable salary, consider the following:

  • Industry standards for similar positions
  • Owner’s qualifications and experience
  • Time and effort invested in the business
  • Geographic location

3.2 Calculate Payroll and Taxes

Once a reasonable salary is set, calculate the payroll and associated taxes:

  • Gross Pay: Total salary before deductions.
  • Federal Income Tax: Withhold based on the employee’s W-4 form.
  • State Income Tax: Varies by state; withhold accordingly.
  • Social Security and Medicare (FICA): Withhold 6.2% for Social Security and 1.45% for Medicare from the employee’s pay. The employer matches these contributions.

3.3 File Federal Quarterly Payroll Taxes

File Form 941, Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return, to report wages paid and federal tax withholdings. Submit this form quarterly:

  • Q1: January – March, due by April 30
  • Q2: April – June, due by July 31
  • Q3: July – September, due by October 31
  • Q4: October – December, due by January 31

3.4 Record Payroll Transactions

Maintain accurate payroll records, including:

  • Employee information
  • Salary details
  • Tax withholdings
  • Pay dates

Accurate records are essential for tax reporting and audits.

3.5 File State Payroll Taxes

Comply with state-specific payroll tax requirements, which may include:

  • State income tax withholdings
  • State unemployment insurance (SUI)
  • Other state-specific payroll taxes

Check with your state’s tax authority for specific filing deadlines and requirements.

3.6 Prepare Annual Tax Returns

At the end of the year, file annual payroll tax returns:

  • Form W-2: Report wages and taxes withheld for each employee. Provide copies to employees and the Social Security Administration (SSA) by January 31.
  • Form 940: Report federal unemployment tax (FUTA). Due by January 31.

What Is a Reasonable Salary for S Corp Owners?

Determining a reasonable salary for S corporation owners is crucial to comply with IRS regulations and avoid penalties. Here’s what to consider:

4.1 How Much Salary Is Reasonable?

A reasonable salary should reflect what similar businesses pay for similar services. Factors to consider include:

  • Job duties and responsibilities
  • Industry standards
  • Owner’s experience and qualifications
  • Hours worked

4.2 What Is the 60/40 Rule?

The 60/40 rule is a guideline some accountants use to help determine a reasonable salary:

  • 60%: Allocate 60% of the business’s profits to the owner’s salary.
  • 40%: The remaining 40% can be distributed as dividends, which are not subject to payroll taxes.

While this rule can be a useful starting point, always consider specific business circumstances and consult with a tax professional.

4.3 How Can ADP Support S Corp Payroll Needs?

ADP, a leading payroll and HR services provider, offers several solutions to support S corp payroll needs:

  • Payroll Processing: Automated payroll calculations and tax withholdings.
  • Tax Filing: ADP handles federal, state, and local payroll tax filings.
  • Compliance: Stay compliant with IRS and state regulations.
  • Reporting: Access detailed payroll reports and records.

By leveraging ADP’s services, S corp owners can simplify payroll management and focus on growing their business.


Managing payroll for an S corporation involves several critical steps, from setting up a payroll system to filing federal and state payroll taxes. Ensuring that S corporation owners receive a reasonable salary and comply with IRS guidelines is essential to avoid penalties and optimize tax benefits. With the right tools and resources, such as ADP, S-corp owners can streamline payroll processes and maintain compliance with ease.

By understanding the intricacies of S corporation payroll, business owners can make informed decisions, ensure regulatory compliance, and focus on achieving their business goals.