Taxation of Employee Bonuses and Awards

Generally, any bonuses or awards you receive for outstanding work are included in your income and should be shown on your Form W-2. These include prizes such as vacation trips for meeting sales goals. If the prize or award you receive is goods or services, you must include the fair market value of the goods or services in your income. However, if your employer merely promises to pay you a bonus or award at some future time, it is not taxable until you receive it or it is made available to you.

Employee achievement award.

If you receive tangible personal property (something other than cash, a gift certificate, or an equivalent item) as an award for length of service or safety achievement, you generally can exclude its value from your income. However, the amount you can exclude is limited to your employer’s cost and cannot be more than $1,600 ($400 for awards that are not qualified plan awards) for all such awards you receive during the year.

Your employer can tell you whether your award is a qualified plan award. Your employer must make the award as part of a meaningful presentation, under conditions and circumstances that do not create a significant likelihood of it being disguised pay.

However, the exclusion does not apply to the following awards.

  • A length-of-service award if you received it for less than 5 years of service or if you received another length-of-service award during the year or the previous 4 years.
  • A safety achievement award if you are a manager, administrator, clerical employee, or other professional employee or if more than 10% of eligible employees previously received safety achievement awards during the year.


Ben Green received three employee achievement awards during the year: a nonqualified plan award of a watch valued at $250, and two qualified plan awards of a stereo valued at $1,000 and a set of golf clubs valued at $500. Assuming that the requirements for qualified plan awards are otherwise satisfied, each award by itself would be excluded from income. However, because the $1,750 total value of the awards is more than $1,600, Ben must include $150 ($1,750 − $1,600) in his income.


Source: IRS Publication 525

Last updated: 12/8/2016