Q & A

Ask Rusty – Taxing Social Security Benefits

Dear Rusty:  My wife started collecting Social Security at her full retirement age of 66. I am 60 and still working, and I think it is unfair that we must add her Social Security earnings to mine when we file taxes.  She has also worked some this year. Do we need to add this amount she received to our wages when we file?  Signed:  Overtaxed

Dear Overtaxed:  We regularly hear from people who, like you, are upset to find that their Social Security benefits can contribute to their tax liability.  After all, you paid into Social Security with your taxable earnings so benefits shouldn’t be taxable, right? Well they weren’t when Social Security was first enacted in the late 1930’s. But back in 1983 Congress changed that to make up to 50% of benefits taxable if your income was over a certain limit, and then in 1993 another income threshold was added to make up to 85% of benefits taxable. And yes, since you’re married and filing jointly all of your combined income, including any earnings either of you have, affects the amount of your Social Security benefits that will be taxable. Without getting into the reasons or fairness, here’s how taxing Social Security works:

Social Security uses what’s called “provisional income” to determine if your benefits are taxable.  Provisional income includes your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) with certain other things (i.e., tax exempt interest) added, including 50% of your total Social Security benefit, to arrive at your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI), or “provisional income”.  If your provisional income exceeds certain levels, a portion of your Social Security becomes taxable income.

The income levels to determine tax liability are different depending upon whether your tax filing status is “single” or “married filing jointly”.  Single people with provisional income of $25,000 or less and married couples filing jointly with provisional income of $32,000 or less pay no income taxes on their Social Security benefits.   For single people with provisional income between $25,000 and $34,000 and married people with provisional income between $32,000 and $44,000, up to 50% of their benefits are taxable. And for those over the higher income thresholds, up to 85% of benefits are taxable.  

Only your income in excess of those thresholds count when computing the amount of your Social Security that is taxable.  Take, for example, a couple whose total provisional income is $60,000, about $15,000 of which is one half of their total combined Social Security benefits.  Zero percent of the first $32,000 of provisional income is taxable; 50% of the income between $32,000 and $44,000 ($12,000) is taxable; and 85% of the income over $44,000 is taxable.  So to do the math for this example:

  • 0% of the first $32,000 is taxable ($0)
  • 50% of the income between $32,000-$44,000 is taxable (50% of $12,000 equals $6,000)
  • 85% of the income over $44,000 is taxable (85% of $16,000 equals $13,600)

The results of these calculations are added together to compute how much of your Social Security income is taxable.  In this example for a married couple with $60,000 in provisional income, $0+$6000+$13600 equals $19,600 in taxable Social Security income.  In other words, $19,600 of their total $30,000 Social Security benefit is taxable (about 65% in this example).  IRS Publication 915 includes a worksheet for these computations.

So yes, adding Social Security income to your wages has tax implications but it is, nevertheless, the current law.  Although there are active proposals in Congress to eliminate taxing of Social Security benefits, none have gained enough traction to predict success.  For this reason, you should always consult with a Tax Advisor to see how much of your Social Security benefit is taxable, or whenever any additional income might increase your tax liability.

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