Thursday, 1 April 2010

What are golden handshakes?

Golden handshakes are payments to an individual upon termination of employment and may also be known as lump sum payments.

There are cases where such payments are not taxed at all, which are those post-death when an employee has died in service, and in some cases payments due to disability may qualify for exemption. Those are outside the norm.

For the most part termination payments are taxable under special rules. The first £30,000 of a leaving payment will be exempt from tax if it is an ex-gratia payment and therefore non-contractual. One may have to make the case to HMRC that the payment is not for services rendered and that there was no obligation on behalf of the employer.

Otherwise, payments in lieu of notice (PILONs- how we love these acronyms) are taxable if contractual in the sense that the employee's contract specifies that the employer will make a PILON if the employee is asked not to work notice.

If the contract does not specify this, being silent on the position where the employee is asked to leave without working notice, then the first £30,000 may qualify for the tax exemption because it then represents “damages” for breach of contract. However, if the employer habitually follows the practice of paying terminated employees in lieu of notice even though the contract does not specify this then HMRC may take the view that the first £30,000 is taxable because an employee would have the expectation and the employer probably the intention from the outset.

A true redundancy payment should qualify for the £30,000 exemption, but must be supportable as genuine on the evidence available.

If you are starting to think this whole area of leaving payments is a minefield, you would be right. If you are an employer planning on letting some of your workers go, you should get professional advice.

If you are an employee on the receiving end of both your notice and a proposed payment, you would also be wise to get professional advice before the agreement, and also in completing your Self Assessment Tax Return later. The level of taxation on any non-exempt amount might also depend on what level of income you have in the year you receive your payment, and often if you are not seeking further work you will benefit by having your termination payment at the beginning of a tax year in April or May so that it will not be aggregated with a whole year's pay.

The golden rule for golden handshakes is to seek professional advice.

© Jon Stow 2010

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