As the entertainment industry continues to adjust to a new normal, a largely forgotten provision of the Internal Revenue Code may provide welcome relief to both entertainment businesses and their employees during these uncertain times. The provision would allow individuals to receive tax-free payments from their employers while still giving employers the benefit of a deduction for such payments. The tax relief in question hearkens back to an earlier national crisis: following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed the Victims of Terrorism Tax Relief Act of 2001, which was intended to provide federal tax relief to victims of national disasters. Among the tax provisions to stem from this legislation was Internal Revenue Code Section 139 (Section 139).
Section 139 permits individuals to exclude from gross income for federal income tax purposes payments from any source (including an employer) that are qualified disaster relief payments. Qualified disaster relief payments include, among other things, payments and reimbursements for reasonable and necessary medical, personal, family, living, or funeral expenses that are incurred by an individual as a result of a qualified disaster and not otherwise compensated (e.g., by insurance). Significantly, employers are able to deduct such payments for federal income tax purposes. Section 139 payments are also not subject to any federal withholding obligations and, therefore, do not need to be reported on a Form W-2 or 1099.