Retirement Income Visions™ began a series of posts on the topic of Social Security on September 27th, focusing on various little-known strategies for maximizing Social Security benefits. In addition to the strategies not receiving a lot of publicity, when they are discussed, income taxation is often overlooked. Given the fact that a large portion of Social Security benefits can be subject to income tax, maximization of after-tax Social Security benefits should be your goal with each strategy.
Prior to 1984, Social Security benefits were nontaxable. Beginning in 1984, up to 50% of Social Security benefits became subject to taxation. The percentage was increased from 50% to up to 85% beginning in 1994. Since 1994, up to 85% of Social Security benefits are taxable, depending upon the total of two individual calculations: (1) 50% of Social Security benefits plus (2) adjusted gross income increased by tax-exempt income. While tax-exempt income generally isn’t taxable, it comes into play when calculating the taxable amount of one’s Social Security benefits. Whenever the total of these two amounts, otherwise referred to as “combined income,” exceeds a specified threshold, a portion of Social Security benefits is taxable.
The amount of the threshold is dependent upon your tax filing status. If your status is single, head of household, or married filing separate, the threshold is $25,000. If, on the other hand, your status is married filing joint, then your threshold is $32,000. The greater the excess of “combined income” over the specified threshold, the greater the amount of taxable Social Security benefits.
The $25,000 and $32,000 thresholds are the floor amounts for calculating taxable Social Security benefits. Up to 50% of Social Security benefits are taxable if your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000 if you use single, head of household, or married filing separate filing status. The combined income level for married filing joint status for taxation of up to 50% of Social Security benefits is between $32,000 and $44,000. Once the upper limits of these respective thresholds are exceeded, up to 85% of Social Security benefits are taxable.
So, if up to 85% of Social Security benefits are taxable, why is the title of this post, Say Goodbye to Up to 30% of Your Social Security Benefits? As with taxation of all income, the amount of income tax that you pay is dependent upon the amount of your taxable income. Taxable income is calculated by subtracting itemized deductions or the standard deduction and personal exemptions from adjusted gross income. Once you determine your taxable income, income tax rates are applied to specified ranges of taxable income that are dependent upon your tax filing status. Federal income tax rates currently range from a low of 15% to a high of 35%.
Assuming that your situation is such that 85% of your Social Security benefits are taxable and assuming that you’re in the top tax bracket of 35%, then you will lose 29.75% (85% x 35%), or approximately 30%, of your Social Security benefits to federal income tax. Conversely, you will retain 70.25% (100% – 29.75%), or approximately 70%, of your benefits after paying the income tax attributable to them.
In an effort to help you better understand taxation of Social Security benefits, next week’s post will include calculations of taxable Social Security benefits, federal income tax attributable to taxable benefits, and Social Security benefits net of federal income tax for various income levels. All of you analyticals will love this one!
Robert Klein, CPA, PFS, CFP®, RICP®, CLTC® is the founder and president of Retirement Income Center in Newport Beach, California. Bob is also the sole proprietor of Robert Klein, CPA. Bob applies his unique background, experience, expertise, and specialization in tax-sensitive retirement income planning strategies to optimize the longevity of his clients’ after-tax retirement income and assets. He does this as an independent financial advisor using customized holistic planning solutions based on each client’s needs and personality.