The IRS really hates businesses that fail to pay their payroll taxes for good reason. The government ends up paying for these failures twice. First, they never get the money. Second, they end up having to credit the employees with the withholding and potentially pay refunds on the money they never received. The resulting IRS policy is to put you out of business as soon as possible to avoid the run-up of these tax debts.
What should you do if your cash flow just can’t hack it?
Step 1 is to stop digging the hole. Immediately, start paying your payroll taxes for each payroll at the same time you pay the employees. If your cash situation is so bad that paying your payroll taxes and employees is not feasible, start laying them off until you get it down to what you can pay. In my experience, the idea that your business is going to magically improve next week never happens.
Step 2, you need a new business plan yesterday. The planning process needs to consider all the standard cash flow options such as collecting on receivables, stringing out suppliers, and improving inventory turns. Cash flow is one thing, but profitability is the only thing that works in the long term. Unless you can find a clear path to profitability, the company is not going to survive. Recognize it. Close it. Go on to something new.
Step 3 is to minimize the impact on you the business owner. The IRS will eventually show up and assess a penalty on you personally for the monies withheld from the employees’ paychecks. You can minimize this impact by paying those trust funds personally and designating that payment to be applied to the “trust funds only”. This will reduce the unpaid trust funds portion that the IRS could eventually assess upon you. This only works if you make the payment voluntarily. The company cannot do this.
Unpaid payroll taxes are the worst tax debt you can have. The IRS will eventually shut you down, but they usually don’t show up until the debt is large. You then file for bankruptcy, but the IRS will assess the Trust Funds Penalty on you personally. Now you’re out of business and an employee again. But you owe $100k or more with the IRS threatening levies against your wages for the next 10 years. The time for action is now.