“Social Security provides a guaranteed source of income in retirement, but what many don't realize is that you're not guaranteed to keep it all.”
Coordinating income in retirement takes a bit more thought than just collecting a paycheck. Take too much from Peter, you’ll end up paying Paul. Some retirees end up owing taxes on their Social Security benefits. If you want to avoid this scenario, master the details as explained in the article “Will My Retirement Fund Withdrawals Affect My Social Security Benefits?” from The Motley Fool.
It all depends upon your income. This is defined as your adjusted gross income, or AGI, plus nontaxable interest plus half of your annual Social Security benefits. The AGI is a person’s income for the year, minus certain tax deductions, like self-employment taxes and contributions to tax-deferred retirement accounts. Withdrawals taken from traditional IRAs or most 401(k)s, which are tax-deferred retirement accounts, do count towards the AGI. However, Roth retirement account withdrawals do not. The only nontaxable interest in your combined income calculation would be tax-exempt bond funds.
For example, a single person with an AGI of $20,000 with $1,000 in non-taxable interest and a $12,000 annual Social Security benefit would have a combined income of $27,000 ($20,000 plus $1,000 plus $6,000 totals $27,000).
Single taxpayers with a combined income of more than $25,000 and married couples filing jointly with a combined income of more than $32,000 could pay taxes on as much as 50% of their Social Security benefits. Single adults with a combined income greater than $24,000 and married couples filing jointly with a combined income greater than $44,000 could owe taxes on as much as 85% of their benefits.
But wait—here’s a detail you need to know. Because you could owe taxes on 50% or 85% of your benefits does not mean you’ll actually pay this much. There’s a Social Security benefit tax formula that will help you understand how this works. Your estate planning attorney or your accountant can help you figure out how this might impact your retirement finances.
Can you avoid these taxes? With the right plan, maybe. Most retiree’s sole source of income is Social Security and withdrawals from retirement accounts. Being smart with those withdrawals, can reduce the likelihood of owing taxes on Social Security benefits.
If you know that you are approaching one of the Social Security threshholds, try to avoid withdrawing more money from tax-deferred retirement accounts. If you have Roth accounts, try to live from them, because they don’t impact your tax status. Another alternative is to pinch pennies for a while, or simply take the plunge and pay the taxes.
Delaying Social Security benefits as long as you can, up to age 70, is another way to reduce the likelihood of owning taxes on benefits. Yes, you can start taking Social Security at age 62, but you must wait to claim your full benefits until you reach your full retirement age. If you start taking benefits early, you’ll get less than your full benefit, and that smaller amount will be permanent.
You can’t pay taxes on benefits that you’re not receiving. Delaying benefits will increase their size, which will reduce the amount to be withdrawn from tax-deferred accounts. This will lower your AGI.
It’s possible that you may not be able to avoid paying taxes on Social Security benefits. However, knowing your unique situation in advance and planning accordingly, will be better than living with a reduced budget because you didn’t know and didn’t plan.
Reference: The Motley Fool (Jan. 17, 2020) “Will My Retirement Fund Withdrawals Affect My Social Security Benefits?”