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5 min read

IRS 20 Factor Test: Decoding Independent Contractor Status

IRS 20 Factor Test: Decoding Independent Contractor Status

Determining a worker’s status—whether they are considered an employee or an independent contractor—is a critical decision with substantial implications for both businesses and workers. The IRS guides this matter through what is known as the IRS 20-Factor Test, a set of criteria used to assess the degree of control and independence in a working relationship. While not a strict formula, these factors are pivotal in understanding how the IRS views the nature of work and the responsibilities of the hiring firm towards individuals performing services.

The test examines a variety of aspects such as how much instruction and training the worker receives, their level of autonomy, the method of payment, and whether the work performed is a key aspect of the business. By carefully considering these factors, employers can make informed decisions to ensure compliance with IRS guidelines and avoid the costly consequences of worker misclassification. For workers, recognizing these factors is equally important, as it affects their tax obligations and eligibility for employment benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • The IRS 20-Factor Test determines the working relationship between workers and businesses.
  • Misclassification of a worker can lead to significant legal and tax consequences.
  • Employers and workers must understand and apply the test to maintain compliance with IRS regulations.

Understanding the IRS 20-Factor Test

The IRS 20-Factor Test is pivotal in differentiating between employees and independent contractors, influencing federal employment taxes and worker classification.

Historical Context and Importance

Introduced to enforce federal tax statutes, the IRS 20-Factor Test stems from common law principles to assess the employer-employee relationship. The test’s outcome holds significant implications for employers and their tax obligations.

Overview of the 20 Factors

These 20 factors scrutinize aspects such as behavioral control, financial control, and the relationship between the parties. Employers must carefully evaluate each criterion to ensure accurate worker classification.

Distinctive Aspects of Employee vs Independent Contractor

An employee typically works under an employer’s instruction and receives regular wages. In contrast, an independent contractor usually has more freedom, potentially profits or incurs losses, and may offer services to the public.

Common Law Rules and the IRS

The standard law rules applied by the IRS address the degree of control and independence crucial for establishing if an individual is an employee or an independent contractor.

Key Terms Explained

The test includes terms such as behavioral control and financial control, referring to the employer’s influence over the worker’s tasks and investment.

Interpreting Levels of Control

Levels of control, whether behavioral or financial, are

Legal and Tax Implications

The IRS 20-factor test is central to determining employee or independent contractor status, affecting federal employment taxes and legal responsibilities. The outcome can have significant legal and tax repercussions for businesses.

Federal Employment Tax Requirements

Determining the correct worker status is essential for federal employment tax obligations. Employers must withhold income taxes, withhold and pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, and pay unemployment tax on wages paid to employees. Independent contractors handle their federal tax responsibilities.

Consequences of Misclassification

Misclassifying employees as independent contractors can result in retroactive damages, including civil fines, back taxes, and interest. Employers may owe back taxes for Social Security and Medicare and unemployment taxes.

Voluntary Classification Settlement Program

The Voluntary Classification Settlement Program (VCSP) allows employers to reclassify their workers as employees for future tax periods with partial relief from federal employment taxes. To be eligible, employers must meet specific requirements, including consistent prior treatment of workers as independent contractors.

Dispute Resolution: Form SS-8

Workers or employers need more certainty about the correct classification to file Form SS-8 with the IRS. The IRS will review the facts and circumstances and determine the worker’s status.

State-Specific Legislation

States like California have unique wage and hour laws influenced by the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act. These laws may have different criteria for worker classification that can impact tax and employment law compliance.

Insurance and Workers’ Compensation

Misclassification can affect employer responsibilities for insurance and workers’ compensation. Employers are generally required to provide workers’ compensation for employees but not for independent contractors. Misclassification could leave businesses exposed to legal liabilities.

1099 Contractors and Economic Realities

The classification of 1099 contractors must reflect the economic reality of their working conditions. Self-employed people are responsible for their taxes, including estimated tax payments, Social Security, and Medicare.

Employer Responsibilities and Penalties

Employers have the burden of proof in demonstrating that their workers are correctly classified. Error or willful misclassification may result in penalties, including payment of back taxes with interest and, in some cases, additional monetary penalties.

Practical Application and Compliance

In the realm of correctly classifying workers, the practical application of the IRS 20-Factor Test necessitates a granular approach to compliance, demanding that business owners and employers integrate precise administrative processes and training programs to adhere to federal guidelines and minimize misclassification risks.

Implementing Business Practices for Compliance

Employers are encouraged to systematically review their treatment of workers in light of the IRS rules. This includes assessing the degree of control exerted over the details of a worker’s activities. Businesses with greater control over workers are likelier to have employees than independent contractors. They should document work reports and instructions provided to workers, ensuring they reflect accurate worker status.

Administrative Processes for Worker Status

Administrative solid procedures are essential for determining worker status. Employers must ensure that their internal policies align with IRS guidelines, particularly in evaluating the work sequence and instruction level. They should maintain records that detail the nature of compensation, like wages or fees, and the basis on which they’re provided.

Providing Employee and Contractor Training

Training can be telling; the IRS considers the need for and provision of training as indicators of an employee relationship. Training should be documented, and the scope of instruction should correspond with a worker’s classification. Employers should offer clear instructions only to employees, while independent contractors typically use their methods.

Strategies for Reducing Misclassification Risks

Misclassification can lead to financial penalties. To prevent this, businesses must evaluate the relationship of the parties and the financial control exercised. They should use written contracts to define relationships and perform regular worker classification audits. When followed, IRS rules provide a framework that reduces the incidence of costly misclassification.

Leveraging IRS Rules and Guidelines

Understanding and leveraging IRS guidelines can protect businesses from misclassification errors. Regular training on these rules helps to create a neutral understanding across the organization, ensuring consistent application. The IRS offers resources that clarify aspects of the worker classification, and businesses should use them comprehensively.

Personal Services and the Level of Control

Personal services often involve greater control by those who hire them, indicating an employee status. Employers need to examine the level of control relative to IRS standards. Independent contractors have more autonomy, so exerting excessive control can imply an employment relationship and necessitate the adjustment of practices to ensure compliance.


Determining the status of workers as independent contractors or employees is critical for tax purposes. The IRS 20 Factor Test is a comprehensive guide for employers to assess their relationships with individuals performing services.

Notable among these factors are behavioral control, financial control, and the nature of the relationship. Employers must consider elements such as the degree of instruction, the worker’s financial investment, and the relationship’s permanency.

Employment classification affects tax obligations, compliance with labor laws, and eligibility for employee benefits. It is vital that employers accurately assess each working relationship against the IRS criteria to ensure proper classification.

The test outcomes determine whether an employer has sufficient control over a worker to establish an employment relationship. Misclassification can lead to significant legal and financial repercussions.

Employers should assess their workforce considering these guidelines, acknowledging the dynamic nature of work relationships and the evolving interpretation of existing laws. A clear understanding of the IRS 20 Factor Test is paramount for both tax compliance and the protection of workers’ rights.

Article By
Managing Editor
Milly is an international lawyer and tech entrepreneur who has advised companies on expanding globally for over 5 years. She is an advocate of remote hiring and regularly consults on future of work matters. Milly founded RemotePad to help employers learn more about building and growing international teams.