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The recent federal tax overhaul changed a lot of rules, but one thing remains the same: It is exceedingly difficult to evade the long reach of the tax man.
That’s even true of Social Security benefits. Most people know that working before their full retirement age can result in a reduced benefit. But earn too much money — even by simply making withdrawals from some types of retirement plans — and you also can end up paying income taxes on your Social Security benefits.
Some people have to pay federal income taxes on their Social Security benefits. This usually happens only if you have other substantial income (such as wages, self-employment, interest, dividends and other taxable income that must be reported on your tax return) in addition to your benefits.
Whether or not you owe taxes on these benefits depends on your “combined income.” The SSA defines this as adding up your:
- Adjusted gross income
- Nontaxable interest
- One-half of your Social Security benefits
If you file an individual return and your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000, you may owe income tax on up to 50 percent of benefits. Earn more than that, and up to 85 percent of your benefits could be subject to taxes.
For those filing a joint return, the income ranges are between $32,000 and $44,000 for the 50 percent limit. Earn more than that, and the “up to 85 percent” rule kicks in.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce your income and lower — or even avoid paying — taxes on your Social Security benefits. Following are five ways to lower that tax burden.
Consider withdrawing money from a Roth account
If you have socked away money in a 401(k) or traditional IRA, expect Uncle Sam to come calling during your retirement. After years of deferring taxes on those contributions, the bill is due once you begin making withdrawals on the money.
Unfortunately, these withdrawals will likely boost your income. For this reason, withdrawals from a 401(k) or traditional IRA probably put you at the greatest risk of having your Social Security benefits taxed.
One way to avoid such taxation is to withdraw only as much money as the government obligates you to do each year — known as the minimum required distribution — and to take any additional cash that you need from a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), if you have one. Since no taxes are due on Roth distributions, these withdrawals will not impact your adjusted gross income.
However, there are many good reasons not to withdraw money from a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) — including the fact that you are not required to take minimum distributions on these accounts, and thus can defer taxes until your death — and even beyond if you give the money to heirs.
So, consult with a tax professional before making this decision. A pro can help you to decide whether withdrawing money from a Roth account — or making a combination of withdrawals from both a Roth and a traditional 401(k) or IRA account — is the best strategy for you.
Distribute your RMD to a charity
Giving money to charity is a great way to help make the world a better place. While doing good for others, you can also lower the odds that your Social Security benefit will be taxed.
If you are 70½ or older, you can take up to $100,000 of your annual required minimum distribution, give it to a charity and avoid income taxes on the money. This is known as a qualified charitable distribution.
Since the money is not taxed, it will not boost your adjusted gross income. But you need to be aware of some key rules.
For starters, the money must be directed to a qualified 501(c)(3) organization.
Also, you cannot use funds from a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored plan to make this type of distribution. There are ways around this — such as rolling over money to an IRA — but again, this strategy should not be used without consulting your tax adviser.
Choose tax-friendly investments
Lowering income in every possible way is the key to keeping your Social Security benefits out of Uncle Sam’s clutches. If you have money in taxable investment accounts — as opposed to retirement accounts — it might be wise to keep it in low-tax or no-tax investments. That way, you can keep a lid on your taxable income.
For instance, many investment companies — such as Vanguard and Fidelity — offer tax-managed mutual funds that aim to keep your tax bill to a minimum. Buying index funds also can help. Managers of actively managed funds tend to buy and sell frequently, which can trigger taxable events for investors who own those funds.
Of course, it is foolish to choose an investment simply because of its tax benefits. Instead, make sure your investment choices make sense in the big picture. Consulting with a financial adviser can help you focus on the right option.
Think twice about taking a part-time job
Every dollar you earn doing part-time work can push you a little closer to owing taxes on your Social Security benefits. Again, it’s silly to quit a job you enjoy — or need — simply to trim your tax bill a little. But if the job is a low-wage pain in the neck that only provides you with a modest financial benefit, you might be better off quitting so that you can reduce your income for the tradeoff of lowering or eliminating taxes on your Social Security benefits.
Besides, time on the golf course sure sounds better than greeting people at Walmart.
Delay collecting your benefits
Choosing to delay collecting Social Security benefits until your full retirement age — or even beyond — might be the simplest way to avoid paying taxes on your Social Security benefits, at least for a while. Waiting to file for benefits also means you will get a bigger check each month once you finally do start collecting.
For more on the pros and cons of delaying Social Security benefits, check out:
- “Ask Stacy: Should I Wait Until 70 for Social Security?“
- “5 Unique Features of Social Security Income — and Why You Should Delay It“
Do you have more tips for sheltering Social Security benefits from taxation? Share them by commenting below or on our Facebook page.