W2 vs 1099-NEC: Which does my business have to issue?

Should you file W2s for employees or 1099-NEC forms for independent contractors? You might need to file both.

by Tammy Farrell CPA CFE
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

Deciding whether to use form W2 or form 1099-NEC depends on which type of worker you're reporting payments for. How to classify workers is one of the more controversial topics that businesses need to address. While it may seem easy, there's no universal agreement about when a person should be classified as an employee versus when they should be classified as an independent contractor.

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About W2 and 1099-NEC forms

W2 and 1099-NEC are tax information forms that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requires businesses to prepare and file annually to report payments made to different types of workers. The due date for both forms is January 31. That's when you'll need to have them mailed or electronically sent to the people you paid. You'll submit the W2 forms to the Social Security Administration (SSA) and 1099-NEC to the IRS. Once the SSA is done processing the forms, they'll send your information over to the IRS.

When to use W2 forms

W2 forms are used to annually report the wages paid to workers who are employees of the business. Employees are often given set work hours, provided with the tools they need to do the work, given instructions and training, and are hired for an indefinite period of time. When taken together, those traits distinguish that the person is an employee.

When to use 1099-NEC forms

Form 1099-NEC is used to annually report payments made to nonemployee workers who provided services to a business. NEC stands for nonemployee compensation. You'll need to complete the 1099-NEC form and report that to the IRS. The information used to be reported on form 1099-MISC until 2020.

People who receive nonemployee compensation are often referred to as independent contractors or freelancers. What separates them from employees is that the working relationship differs and is often governed by a written or verbal contract for a specific project or duration. They are free to work for other companies and on a schedule that suits them as long as they comply with the terms of the contract.

Which form should you use?

You could use either or both forms depending on whether you've paid employees or if you've hired independent contractors and paid them during the year you're reporting the payments. There are some additional rules for each form that you'll also need to follow.

Differences between independent contractors and employees

When businesses hire employees and create an employment relationship, they're obligated to collect Social Security and Medicare withholding taxes as well as unemployment insurance in most states. They also must follow state and federal requirements regarding paying minimum wages, overtime laws, child labor laws, and recording requirements. It can be a lot of work!

With independent contractors, the burden is on the worker to pay self-employment taxes, not the business. Since they're not employees, businesses don't pay for health insurance or other benefits for the contractors and don't have to pay the employer portion of the withholding tax.

When businesses use independent contractors, they save money on administrative expenses and taxes and are outside the parameters of the Federal Labor Standards Act, so there's less regulatory burden on them.

The consequences of using the wrong form

The government frowns upon tax evasion, so if you're caught intentionally misclassifying workers as independent contractors, you could be subject to paying back tax payments, large fines, interest owed, legal fees, back wages, and benefits, and may even face jail time. And if you didn't misclassify them intentionally, or you feel that they are classified correctly, you can appeal their decision and try to make your case. If you find that you need to reclassify workers, the IRS has a voluntary program that could help you with the process.

Business obligations for 1099-NEC and W2 filing

Review your payroll and accounts payable records throughout the year and examine your worker classifications to be confident that you are reporting each individual accurately. Send your W-2 and 1099-NEC forms out on or before January 31st annually (or the following business day when it falls on a weekend) to the workers you paid and to the government, and you'll be well on your way to full compliance.

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Tammy Farrell CPA CFE

About the Author

Tammy Farrell CPA CFE

Tammy Farrell is a Certified Public Accountant and Certified Fraud Examiner who enjoys researching the nuances of accoun… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.