Fixed and variable rate refers to an IRS revenue procedure designed for businesses to reimburse employees tax-free for the business use of a personal vehicle.
A FAVR car allowance reimburses employee vehicle costs by identifying both the ﬁxed, localized costs (insurance, depreciation, registration) and variable costs (gas, oil, maintenance) when setting the employee’s reimbursement.
Neither a traditional car allowance nor a mileage reimbursement makes distinctions between the types of expenses or sets rates based on localized costs. These fatal ﬂaws lead to inaccuracies, inequitable reimbursements, and costly consequences.
A FAVR program also bases reimbursement rates on the expenses associated with a standard vehicle most appropriate to the employee’s job. This promotes both accurate and equitable payments.
Each employee receives a ﬁxed regular payment (like a car allowance) along with a variable cents-per-mile rate that rises and falls with variable expenses, with all rates based on employee zip code and a standard vehicle.
First of all, different employees face different costs. Gas prices vary from locality to locality, as do insurance rates, tax rates, and fees such as registration. Different employees drive different amounts as well. Neither a standard car allowance nor a mileage reimbursement can address these variations equitably or cost-effectively.
Second, the costs of driving for work change over time, but traditional plans respond inadequately to these changes. Most employers choose a standard car allowance or mileage rate for its simplicity. They set a certain monthly amount that seems reasonable or is borrowed from a competitor, and then leave it there for years. Or they go with the IRS mileage rate, which may change annually, but cannot respond adequately to cost spikes or wide discrepancies between costs of driving in different parts of the country. (The IRS rate also has other, more serious problems we’ll cover later.) The fact is, companies choose simple vehicle programs so that they don’t have to think about it, and this guarantees that the policies will not result in accurate or equitable reimbursements.
Third, the tax reform has made changes that will render traditional vehicle reimbursement programs less and less effective. The reasons for this are complicated, so let’s unpack them.
Changes in the tax code will force many businesses to address their car reimbursement policies either this year or next year. Three reasons why:
In light of these changes, companies must at least re-evaluate their policies. There is a lot at stake if you don’t get it right:
Let’s explore the most popular solutions to the tax reform challenges. We’ll see why each one will prove ineffective.
Under the old tax code, a car allowance was treated as taxable income. Under the new law, it’s still taxable income but worth less to the employee. Employees can no longer deduct business mileage to offset the taxation of their vehicle allowance.
What if you just increase your current car allowance? Bad idea. You just increased your costs as well as the amount of money going to taxes (30 – 40% for most employees, plus FICA/Medicare for the employer). Oh, and you still did not solve the problem of inaccurate and inequitable business expense reimbursement.
Say instead of increasing the taxable car allowance, you add a gas card or fuel reimbursement. Now you have increased your costs significantly while adding the challenges of program administration.
Unless employees log business mileage, that fuel card is treated as taxable income. So unless you want the headache of taxing the fuel card, you’ll need to create a mileage tracking program – and chargeback employees for the personal use of gas (or tax the personal use).
You could also try the IRS mileage rate, which is non-taxable. This solves the taxation problem, and for many employees, it could help with the loss of the unreimbursed expense deduction. But it creates a new set of problems.
In summary, employees face both fixed and variable expenses. A car allowance works ok for fixed expenses, but it cannot address variable expenses or disparities between certain localities’ fixed costs.
A mileage reimbursement addresses variable expenses but leaves employees shortchanged if their mileage can’t cover all their fixed expenses, which often amount to 60 – 70% of total vehicle costs. On top of this, you have the questions of taxation, logging mileage, and controlling costs.
If your company’s goal is to treat all employees fairly while addressing vehicle expenses in a cost-effective manner, you will run into trouble in the wake of the tax reform – unless you try a new approach.
FAVR explained in 90 seconds
The best way to solve the tax code conundrum is a fixed and variable rate reimbursement.
FAVR has been receiving quite a bit of attention over the past 18 months as a result of the tax reform and labor code changes. The fixed and variable rate is considered best practice for reimbursing employees. Here’s why:
The fixed and variable rate methodology mirrors how each person incurs vehicle costs.
A FAVR plan takes a precise approach to reimbursing these two types of costs.
A standard vehicle is selected to generate the reimbursements for each employee. (Employees are free to drive whatever vehicle they like within company parameters, though.)
Driver data is applied to the standard vehicle. This means each employee is reimbursed for the standard vehicle based on where they live and drive.
Each employee receives a fixed amount to cover the fixed ownership costs for their home zip code, regardless of the mileage they travel.
Each employee also receives a variable rate multiplied by their mileage. This variable cents-per-mile rate adjusts each month based on gas prices within that employee’s territory.
The allowance and the mileage reimbursement are combined to deliver a geographically cost-sensitive payment that remains non-taxed.
The fixed and variable reimbursement rates are governed by IRS Revenue Procedure 2007-70. These rates are updated each year primarily based on the capital cost of the standard vehicles chosen by companies to generate their reimbursements.
Using a standard vehicle for business reimbursements promotes fairness by removing employee vehicle choices from the equation.
Your employees probably drive a vehicle that suits their lifestyle. Their preferred personal vehicle could be a gas-guzzler such as a pickup truck or a large SUV. Many employees expect your business to reimburse them based on what they drive.
FAVR levels the vehicle reimbursement playing field by using standard vehicles to generate payments. You either reimburse all employees based on one standard vehicle or different groups of employees using different vehicles appropriate to their roles.
Developed as a non-taxable car allowance option, fixed and variable rate has a long history. FAVR plans have been administered for over 80 years with an approval letter by the IRS. In 1992 the IRS officially recognized FAVR reimbursement programs as an accountable plan or non-taxable reimbursement option.
Even 27 years later, when people first hear about the fixed and variable rate reimbursement, they think it is some type of tax loophole, but it is an IRS accountable plan. FAVR is non-taxable just like the IRS mileage rate, but unlike the mileage rate, FAVR plans were designed for businesses rather than individuals and are more accurate, defensible, and equitable.
Fundamentally, to be non-taxable, a payment must address a business expense. When it comes to payments to an employee for use of a personal vehicle, it gets tricky because the company must prove that the payment is a reimbursement of a business expense. It’s way too complicated to keep track of receipts and break down business use vs. personal use.
Fortunately, the IRS has detailed the rules a business can follow in order to keep its vehicle reimbursement plan accountable. For a FAVR vehicle program, the key is using projected expense data specific to the standard vehicle garaged in an employee’s zip code.
There are 28 rules that make FAVR non-taxable. Most of these rules involve data models to ensure you have a statistically defensible program. But there are four categories with flexible guidelines for company choices:
FAVR programs can also be designed for hybrid employees who are considered middle or upper management and also travel 5,000+ miles per year. This reimbursement approach is designed to be a business tool but can be customized to provide additional perks.
However, you can only offer a FAVR plan to employees based in the United States. Because the tax laws in Canada and Mexico are different, these plans can’t be provided for employees in these countries.
FAVR is designed for organizations that have at least five drivers on the plan within the year. These means both small and large organizations can take advantage of this tax-free reimbursement approach. However, in both cases, the complex IRS rules can make administration of the plan a challenge.
The key question is whether the company is equipped to develop and manage the program itself, or whether it's better to outsource FAVR administration.
A fixed and variable rate program can be self-administered, but this is not recommended. The complexity of the 28 rules for IRS compliance keeps most organizations from doing so. Ensuring you have the proper methodology and statistically defensible data makes administering the program a huge challenge. Many organizations struggle just to manage a fuel card program, let alone a FAVR vehicle plan.
If an organization decides to go through the process of self-administration, they need to make sure they have accurate data, a GREAT training program, GREAT support, and a system to manage the compliance. Without these elements in place, the program will fail.
Most organizations instead contract with a FAVR plan administrator who is versed in compliance guidelines. This third-party administrator supplies the data, implementation, and management necessary to ensure the reimbursement remains IRS-compliant and tax-free to the organization and its employees.
To find the right partner to administer your non-taxable reimbursement plan, you need to know what to look for. You want to find a partner who offers:
Implementation can be challenging because changes often bring anxiety. However, an experienced plan administrator will coach both management and drivers through the process, helping them see the benefits of the new plan.
A professional reimbursement plan does more than just reimburse employees for the use of a personal vehicle. A professional plan is comprehensive and scalable, balancing company expense, company risk, and equitable reimbursement.
If you fail to act on this information, employees may leave the company or take other measures to recoup the loss of income.
On top of this, your taxable car allowance or your mileage reimbursement cannot equitably address the variety of expense needs within your organization. Raising the car allowance will increase costs while continuing this inequity. Paying the IRS mileage rate will compromise cost control while over-reimbursing high mileage drivers and under-reimbursing low-mileage drivers. Adding a fuel card or fuel reimbursement to an existing plan only adds more expense and administrative headaches.
Implementing a tax-free FAVR reimbursement program, however, will pay for itself quickly and treat employees equitably. Using a third-party administrator will allow both management and drivers to focus fully on their jobs fulfilling the company’s mission.
That’s what a good vehicle reimbursement policy does – it facilitates the company’s mission.
Re-evaluate your current plan, and consider what both the organization and your employees stand to gain by switching to FAVR.
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