Millions of Americans rely on Social Security benefits for all, or a portion, of their retirement income. Up to 85% of Social Security benefits are subject to federal income tax, depending on your total household income. However, Fidelity recently presented options for taxpayers to reduce how much they pay in taxes on Social Security benefits. Delaying Social Security claims and reducing withdrawals from traditional IRAs are two popular ways Social Security recipients can lower their tax bills. Some others may also work, depending on your specific situation.
Social Security Tax Basics
You must pay taxes on Social Security benefits if your combined income exceeds certain thresholds. Social Security uses a figure called combined income to determine whether your income is above the thresholds where owe taxes on benefits. The formula for determining your combined income is:
Combined Income = Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) + Nontaxable Interest + 1/2 of Social Security benefits
Single filers with combined income above $25,000, and married joint filers above $32,000, may pay taxes on up to 85% of those benefits.
Strategies for Managing Social Security Taxes
While Social Security benefits are subject to taxation, benefits get taxed at a lower rate than other sources of income. A maximum of 85% of Social Security benefits may be taxed, for instance, versus 100% of IRA withdrawals. This makes Social Security a valuable income source for retirees.
If you don't do anything to manage the way your Social Security benefits are taxed, you may wind up with less after-tax income in retirement that you can use to support your lifestyle. Fidelity breaks down two widely used strategies for doing that:
Roth conversion: If you convert savings into a Roth IRA, you can make tax-free withdrawals from the Roth account without increasing your combined income. This Roth conversion strategy lets you claim Social Security benefits without paying more taxes on them.
Delaying Social Security: While you can claim Social Security benefits as early as age 62, waiting to claim boosts your benefit checks. This means that a smaller portion of what you need to pay for living expenses will have to come from taxable IRA income.
How Managing Social Security Taxes Works
As a hypothetical example of the dollar impact of using the second strategy, assume a couple plans to retire at 65. They will pay for retirement with a combination of Social Security and IRA withdrawals totaling $70,000 after taxes. They'll claim the standard deduction of $27,700 and use the income tax brackets for 2023.
If they claim their Social Security benefits at 65, Social Security will pay an annual total of $24,000. Eighty-five percent of that will be taxable. They'll need to withdraw $50,777 from their retirement account and pay $4,777 in income taxes to total $70,000 after taxes are paid.
Now, consider what happens if they wait until age 70, when their Social Security benefit rises to $34,000 a year. Now they withdraw just $38,820 from their IRA and, because this reduces their combined income, only 47% of their Social Security benefit is taxable. The tax bill drops to $2,820 for savings of $1,957.
To further reduce taxes, taxpayers can contribute to Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s before taking Social Security. These accounts allow tax-free withdrawals. Taxpayers can also withdraw more from traditional IRAs before claiming benefits. This spreads out the tax impact over more years.
Social Security Benefits Tax Reduction Limits
You may be able to avoid paying federal income taxes on all or a part of your Social Security benefits using these popular strategies, but they won't necessarily allow all people in all situations to avoid all taxes. For example, where you live is a factor. Some states offer deductions or exemptions on Social Security income, but others fully tax benefits.
One significant potential drawback that could apply no matter where you live is that converting too much pre-tax savings to a Roth IRA could push you into a higher tax bracket now. This could negate long-term tax savings on Social Security benefits.
Furthermore, examples like the one above only work if the retired couple has sufficient financial means to delay taking Social Security benefits until age 70.
Additional Strategies to Reduce Taxes
Besides Roth IRA conversions and delaying Social Security, other techniques can lower your tax burden:
Withdraw more from taxable investment accounts such as traditional IRA and 401(k) plans before claiming Social Security. This spreads the tax impact over more years.
If you have a traditional 401(k), take distributions before taking Social Security. You’ll pay taxes on the 401(k) money either way.
Contribute to a health savings account (HSA). HSA distributions don’t count as income for determining Social Security taxes.
If married, have the higher-earning spouse claim Social Security benefits first to reduce household taxable income.
Move from high-tax states to low- or no-tax states. Some states don’t tax Social Security benefits at all.
Social Security benefits are taxed, but they have some special tax benefits that allow retirees to reduce their overall tax burden using some popular techniques. Strategic moves like Roth IRA conversions and delaying Social Security can significantly reduce your tax burden in retirement. These techniques may require making upfront payments of taxes before retirement. And states tax Social Security in a variety of ways, some of which may not be reduced by these moves.
Retirement Planning Tips
Before making any major financial decisions, consider working with a financial advisor who can evaluate your specific situation. Finding a financial advisor doesn't have to be hard. SmartAsset's free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you're ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
Estimate how much you'll get from Social Security in the future using SmartAsset's Social Security Calculator.
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