If you get Social Security, some of your benefits may be taxable at both the federal and state level. Up to 85% of Social Security benefits can be taxable, depending on your income and filing status. That doesn’t mean that you could pay up to 85% of your Social Security income in taxes, though. It simply means that up to 85% of your benefit could be counted as taxable income.

In this article, you’ll learn how federal and state taxes work for Social Security benefits. We’ll also discuss how to minimize taxes on your benefits, as well as when Social Security recipients need to file a tax return.

Full coverage: Taxes 2024: Everything you need to file your taxes on time

How Social Security is taxed

About 40% of Social Security recipients have to pay federal taxes on their benefits, according to the Social Security Administration. Unlike income tax brackets, which are adjusted annually for inflation, Social Security tax rates and brackets haven’t changed since 1993.

Federal taxes on Social Security benefits

Here’s a breakdown of Social Security taxes based on income and filing status.

If you’re married and filing separately, chances are you’ll owe taxes on a portion of your benefits.

Here’s where things get complicated, though: Social Security doesn’t count all of your income in its calculation. Social Security calculates what’s known as your provisional income to determine how much of your payments are taxable. Provisional income, also known as combined income, is tallied as follows:

Adjusted gross income (AGI): Includes salary and wages, withdrawals from pre-tax retirement accounts, pension income, and investment income

+

Nontaxable interest income: Typically, this is municipal bond interest income. Municipal bond income is subject to state and local taxes, but it’s exempt from federal taxes. However, the IRS includes muni bond income to determine how much of your Social Security is taxable.

+

Half of your Social Security income

= Provisional income

Here’s an example of how Social Security benefits are taxed: Suppose you’re a single filer who receives the average Social Security retirement benefit, which was $1,906 per month as of January 2024. That works out to $22,872 for the year. If Social Security is your only source of income, it’s pretty clear cut in this case: You don’t owe taxes on your benefit, and you probably don’t even need to file a tax return.

Now, let’s say you still receive the average monthly retirement benefit of $1,906, totaling $22,872 annually. But you also collect $10,000 per year from your pension and withdraw $8,000 from a 401(k) during the tax year. On top of that, you earn $2,000 from muni bond interest. Your combined income is calculated as follows:

Adjusted gross income: $18,000 ($10,000 of pension income plus $8,000 of 401(k) income)

+

Non-taxable interest income: $2,000

+

50% of your Social Security benefit: $11,436

= $31,436 of combined income

Based on the Social Security income thresholds, up to 50% of your benefit would be considered taxable income. That’s because you’re a single taxpayer whose income is greater than $25,000 but less than $32,000.

You won’t pay 50% of your benefit in taxes, of course. Based on 2023 tax brackets (which would apply to taxes due in April 2024), your marginal tax rate — the rate at which your last additional dollar of income is taxed — wouldn’t be higher than 12%.

Note that the tax rules don’t just apply to retirement benefits. If you receive Social Security Disability Income (SSDI), survivor benefits, or spousal benefits, you could owe taxes if your income exceeds the levels listed above. However, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits — i.e., disability benefits — are not taxable.

Tip: If you receive Social Security, you can avoid a large tax bill by downloading IRS Form W-4, Voluntary Withholding Request to have taxes withheld from your checks. Send the completed form to your local Social Security office. You can also make quarterly estimated tax payments to the IRS.

State taxes on Social Security benefits

Most states either exempt Social Security income from taxes or don’t levy a state income tax altogether. But if you live in one of the following states, part of your Social Security benefit could be subject to state taxes in 2023 (affecting tax returns due on April 15, 2024):

  • Colorado

  • Connecticut

  • Kansas

  • Minnesota

  • Missouri

  • Montana

  • Nebraska

  • New Mexico

  • Rhode Island

  • Utah

  • Vermont

  • West Virginia

Beginning in 2024, the states of Missouri and Nebraska will no longer tax Social Security benefits. However, this change applies to tax returns that are due in 2025, so recipients could still owe taxes on benefits in these states when they file their returns during the current tax season.

Many of the states that tax Social Security exempt a portion of income from taxation or issue tax credits to offset a portion of the amount due. For example, retirees in Connecticut are only on the hook for taxes on Social Security if they’re single with an AGI above $75,000, or married filing a joint return with an AGI above $100,000. Even at higher incomes, beneficiaries may qualify for a partial exemption.

What is the Social Security tax torpedo?

The Social Security tax torpedo is a phenomenon in which extra income substantially increases retiree tax rates because a higher percentage of your Social Security check is subject to taxes. For example, each additional dollar of income for a single filer with a provisional income of $34,000 or a married couple with a provisional income of $44,000 would cause their taxable income to increase by $1.85. At higher incomes, the effect levels off because no more than 85% of Social Security benefits are taxable.

The tax torpedo can be especially severe when Social Security’s cost of living adjustment (COLA) is higher than usual due to higher-than-average inflation. Take the 8.7% COLA beneficiaries received in 2023 as an example. A taxpayer on the cusp of one of Social Security’s income tax brackets could be surprised to discover that suddenly 50% or 85% of their monthly checks are taxable because the COLA caused their income to spike.

How to plan for taxes on Social Security

Tax planning is an essential part of preparing for retirement. Retirees have a few options for lowering the tax liability on their Social Security income.

Two of the most popular strategies are prioritizing Roth accounts when you’re saving for retirement and delaying Social Security.

Roth accounts, like a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), are funded with after-tax dollars. You never get a tax break for contributing, but your withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. The IRS doesn’t count Roth distributions when it determines how much of your Social Security is taxable. If you haven’t saved in a Roth account, you may be able to convert pre-tax retirement accounts to a Roth IRA, though you’d owe taxes on the converted amount.

Though the retirement age for Social Security starts at 62, you may be able to save on taxes if you delay benefits for as long as possible and live off other assets, like 401(k) and IRA withdrawals when you first retire. Doing so allows you to collect a bigger Social Security check, as retirement benefits increase the longer you wait until they max out at age 70.

By relying on your savings and investments at the beginning of retirement, you may be able to live primarily off of your larger Social Security benefit later. If Social Security is your primary income source, you may be able to avoid taxes on benefits.

By drawing down assets early, you’ll limit the size of future required minimum distributions (RMDs). These are mandatory distributions from pre-tax retirement accounts currently beginning the year you turn 73. Lower RMDs result in less taxable income, which could help you avoid Social Security taxes.

Consult with a tax professional about how these strategies will affect your bottom line.

How to file taxes if you’re a Social Security recipient

If you receive Social Security, you should receive tax form SSA-1099, which shows your total benefits for the tax year. Non-U.S. citizens who were paid Social Security benefits will get form SSA-1042S instead. If you didn’t receive the form or you lost it, you can log into your my Social Security account and click on “Replace Your Tax Form SSA-1099/SSA-1042S.”

You can use the IRS Interactive Tax Assistant for guidance on whether your Social Security is taxable.

Usually, you need to file a tax return if your taxable income is higher than the standard deduction for your age and filing status. The 2023 standard deduction is $13,850 for single taxpayers and $27,700 for married couples filing jointly. Single filers over age 65 get an extra $1,850 standard deduction, while married couples filing a joint return get an additional $1,500 for each person over 65.

If your only source of income is Social Security and you receive less than $50,000 per year, you probably don’t need to file a tax return. That’s because only half of your Social Security counts as taxable income, which would put your taxable income below the Social Security taxation threshold. If you have any questions about whether you need to file, be sure to ask a tax advisor.

Many retirees who need to submit returns will qualify for free tax filing options, such as IRS Free File or free versions of tax filing software. If you need help filing, reach out to your local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program or its sister program, Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE).

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

How can I avoid paying taxes on Social Security?

To avoid paying taxes on Social Security, consider funding a Roth IRA while you’re working and doing Roth conversions for retirement accounts you funded with pre-tax money, as withdrawals from Roth accounts don’t count as taxable income for Social Security.

At what age is Social Security no longer taxed?

Social Security taxes are based on your income and filing status, not your age. If your income is high enough, part of your benefit will be taxable, regardless of your age. Single people 65 and older will need to file a return if their taxable income (non-Roth income sources plus half of Social Security benefits) is above $15,700 in 2023. Married couples over age 65 need to file if their taxable income is higher than $30,700.

Do I have to file taxes if my only income is Social Security?

You may not need to file taxes if your only income is Social Security, but it depends on the size of your benefit. Most people whose sole source of income is Social Security don’t need to file if they get less than $50,000 in benefits. Use the IRS Interactive Tax Assistant to determine if you’re required to file.

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