Taxes on Social Security: Don’t Get Taken for a Wild Ride

Taxes on Social Security: Don’t Get Taken for a Wild Ride

As you prepare for retirement, it’s essential to understand what your taxes will be. You may think your Social Security benefits are tax-free. After all, why would the government pay you money with one hand and take it back with the other? But the truth is, you may pay taxes on your Social Security benefits if you have other sources of income in retirement. 

taxes on social security
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At a certain level of overall income – that includes your Social Security benefits, paid work, withdrawals from investments, passive income or other sources – your Social Security benefits are taxed. And, if you work before full retirement age, your benefits are reduced.

There are three ways your Social Security could be reduced:

  1. Federal taxes
  2. State taxes
  3. Penalties for work income

Continue reading for more detail.

Social Security and Federal Income Tax

Once you hit a certain age, the rules for Social Security taxes are similar to other federal income taxes in that the more money you make overall, the more you are taxed.

But even at the highest tax rate, at least 15 percent of your Social Security benefits are shielded from tax.

IRS Rule of Thumb for Social Security Taxes

The IRS has a rule of thumb for savers who want to see if their social security benefits are taxable: add one-half of your Social Security benefits to all your other income, including tax-exempt interest.

Lowest Bracket: If the number is greater than $25,000 for single filers or $32,000 for married couples, you will owe tax on your benefits.

Middle Bracket: If you exceed the threshold for tax-exempt benefits, but your combined income for single filers is below $34,000, you pay tax on half of your benefits. Fifty percent of your benefits are taxable If you are married and filing jointly, and you make between the minimum amount but less than $44,000 in combined income.

Highest Bracket: Single people making more than $34,000 and married couples making more than $44,000 combined income have 85 percent of their benefits taxed. But remember, that doesn’t mean the government takes 85 percent of your benefit!

Fifteen percent of the benefit for high earners is tax-free, and the part that is taxable is only taxed at your income tax bracket, for example, 24 percent for married couples making between $168,401 and $321,450.

State Taxes on Social Security Benefits

The rules given above for taxing Social Security benefits only apply to Federal taxes.

Thirteen states also tax Social Security benefits.

  • Four states tax them the same way the Federal government taxes them
  • Nine states make exemptions for age or income, reducing the tax burden somewhat.

Thirty-seven states do not tax Social Security benefits.

States That Tax SSI Like the Federal Government:

Minnesota, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia apply state taxes to Social Security benefits using the same brackets as the federal government.

States That Tax SSI Benefits but Have Different Rules Than the Federal Government:

These states each have their own taxation rules for Social Security: Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Utah.

States That Do Not Tax SSI Benefits:

These 37 states do not tax Social Security retirement income: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Additional Work Penalties If You Collect Social Security Before Full Retirement Age

State and federal taxes are not all you need to worry about with Social Security.  There can also be penalties – a reduction in benefits – if you have not achieved full retirement age and you are receiving work income above a certain level.

So while you are allowed to start benefits as soon as you turn 62 , the sooner you start collecting your benefits, the less your monthly benefit will be.  Conversely, the longer you wait (up to 70 years old), the more your monthly income will be.

And the other downside to starting benefits early is that if you elect to collect benefits before your full retirement age and you are receiving work income, you will get less money than if you wait to collect, and the money you get will be subject to tax.

Full retirement age for people who turn 62 in 2020 is 66 and 8 months.  Your full retirement age depends on your birth year. (Find your full retirement age here.)

Social Security Work Penalties

For work before full retirement age, Social Security will deduct money from your benefits according to the following guidelines:

  • If you are under full retirement age for the entire year, Social Security deducts $1 from your benefit payments for every $2 you earn above the annual limit. For 2020, that limit is $18,240.
  • In the year you reach full retirement age, Social Security deducts $1 in benefits for every $3 you earn above $48,600 for 2020.

After you reach full retirement age, you will no longer pay a work penalty.  The month you reach full retirement age, you receive your full benefit whether you work or not.   (However, as stated above, up to 85% of your benefits may be taxed by the Federal government and state governments if you earn more than the limits.)

Summary: To put it simply, if you work before full retirement, your monthly benefit is cut by a dollar for every two dollars you make above the $18,240 limit. For example, if your monthly benefit is $800 ($9,600 per year), and you earn $28,240 ($10,000 over the $18,240 limit) from work, your benefit will be cut by $5,000 to $4,600 for the year.

But that also means that your potential tax burden is less.

If you work after full retirement age, you will receive your full benefit no matter what, but depending on how much money you make, up to 85% of your Social Security benefits will be taxable at whatever your marginal tax rate is.

How to Reduce Your Social Security (and All Retirement) Taxes 

Taxes are a significant cost and can eat away at your retirement savings and income potential.  Tax planning should be a critical component of creating a reliable retirement plan. 

Retirement Tax Calculator: Create a Reliable Retirement Tax Forecast

One of the easiest ways to reduce tax expenditures is to (legally) reduce your annual income levels to stay in the lowest possible tax bracket.  Remember, the less you earn, the less you are likely to pay in taxes.

The NewRetirement Planner makes it easy to create a tax forecast for the rest of your life.  The system automatically calculates your :

  • Federal tax based on the latest IRS publications
  • State taxes — using the specific rules for all 50 states
  • Work penalties

To create these forecasts, the NewRetirement Planner gives you robust inputs to create the most reliable projections possible.  You can:

  • Set different levels of income throughout retirement to approximate your tax bracket for each year. Additionally, it allows you to specify if annuity and/or pension income should be taxed (at both the federal and state levels).
  • Get automatic estimates for how much of your Social Security income will be considered taxable based on the state you live in and your gross taxable income by year.
  • Specify how much of your savings are in different types of taxable and non taxable accounts and it automatically calculates the tax liability (or lack thereof) for each account, as well as tax deduction handling of contributions. (And, if you live in a state that doesn’t tax retirement savings withdrawals, the NewRetirement Planner supports that, as well.)
  • Get estimates for your required minimum distributions (RMDs) from retirement accounts starting at age 72 – a significant lever when it comes to tax liability in retirement.
  • Choose if investment returns on after-tax savings should be treated as long-term capital gains or ordinary income.
  • Model a Roth conversion and get an estimate on the tax hit in the year of the conversion as well as the benefit down the road when you draw from the Roth account.
  • Model relocating and the system factors that in and uses your new state tax rates for the years following your planned move.
  • See estimated taxes, gross taxable income by source and your federal tax deductions for every year until your goal age — again enabling you to see opportunities for reducing your tax expense.

The NewRetirement Planner is the easiest way to plan retirement taxes.

Want more retirement planning tax tips? Try Retirement Planning and Your Taxes: Tips for Keeping More of Your Own Money 

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