Code Section 139: Benefits for Employees and Employers

Code Section 139: Benefits for Employees and Employers

by Brian Sweeney, CPA

April 27, 2020 - While it is a little-known section of the Internal Revenue Code, Section 139 can provide employees with benefits on a tax-free basis, and employers a deduction with limited administrative burden. Note that this does not need to be reported on Forms W-2 and 1099.

Originally enacted in response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Section 139 provides that β€œqualified disaster relief payments” be excluded from federal taxable income of the recipient if a national emergency has been declared. Qualified disaster relief payments mean any amount paid to or for the benefit of an individual to reimburse or pay reasonable and necessary personal, family, living, or funeral expenses as a result of a qualified disaster.

As we are now in the midst of another national emergency, this section of the code has once again become relevant to employers who want to assist their employees with qualified coronavirus-related expenses. Employers may consider paying or  reimbursing β€œreasonable and necessary expenses;” some of the expenses employers may consider are:

  • Co-pays and other medical expenses
  • Dependent care (due to school closings)
  • Tutoring expenses (due to school closings)
  • Remote working expenses
  • Transportation-related expense related to work relocation
  • Funeral expenses
  • Home health-related expenses
  • Home expenses due to telecommuting such as a home office setup, printer, internet
  • Cell phone expenses

Items excluded from reimbursement are:

  • Items covered or reimbursed by insurance or otherwise reimbursed
  • Payments for services (i.e. instead of compensation)
  • Payments for lost income

Setting up a Plan

While it does not appear to be required, it is advisable to establish a written plan as a best practice. Basic information should be included, such as:

  • Who is eligible
  • A listing of eligible expenses
  • Reimbursement amount limits
  • Method(s) of reimbursement
  • Whether receipts or other documentation is required

Again, reimbursements to employees can be made on a tax-free basis to support their costs for unreimbursed healthcare, child care, and telecommuting. The fact that these benefits are deductible for the employer and do not create complex reporting requirements means that it may be a good thing for all parties.


Brian Sweeney, CPA

Brian Sweeney, CPA

Brian Sweeney is a partner, the employee ownership (ESOP) team leader, and also a client manager specializing in financial statement audits, business and systems consulting, management and advisory services, and mergers and acquisitions. He works with closely-held businesses in a variety of industries, including manufacturing and wholesale distribution, with a specialty focus on employee-owned companies. As Redpath’s ESOP team leader focusing on client services, financial health, and cultural consulting to employee-owned companies. He works to protect S Corp ESOPs and stays up-to-date and knowledgeable on issues, changes, and legislation through involvement and committee leadership roles in the ESOP community. Brian was elected to and serves on the board of Directors for the National Center of Employee Ownership. He is an active member of the Finance Committee for the ESOP Association, the Government Relations Committee of the ESOP Association Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter, and Employee-Owned S Corporations of America. Brian is a regular presenter on employee ownership topics at local, regional, and national events. He has provided public accounting services at Redpath and Company since 1998.