Retirees in These 12 States Risk Losing Some of Their Social Security Checks | Smart Change: Personal Finance

(Kailey Hagen)

Most seniors count on Social Security benefits in retirement to help them cover their costs, but knowing how much you’ll get isn’t always easy. There are several factors that affect this, including your age when you claim, your birth year, and your income throughout your career.

And if you live in one of the 12 states listed below, you also have to worry about Social Security benefit taxes taking a chunk of your checks. Sometimes, it’s possible to avoid these, but not always. Here’s what you need to know to hold onto as much of your Social Security checks as possible.

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These 12 states tax Social Security benefits

The following 12 states tax some of their seniors’ Social Security benefits:

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  1. Colorado
  2. Connecticut
  3. Kansas
  4. Minnesota
  5. Missouri
  6. Montana
  7. Nebraska
  8. New Mexico
  9. Rhode Island
  10. Utah
  11. Vermont
  12. West Virginia

But living in one of these states isn’t a guarantee that you’ll owe anything. Each state has its own rules that dictate who pays Social Security benefit taxes. Usually, your annual benefit amount or adjusted gross income (AGI) has to exceed a certain threshold. For example, in Kansas, if your AGI is less than $75,000, your Social Security benefits are automatically exempt from taxation.

Review the laws for your state so you understand whether you’re in danger of owing these taxes. You should also double-check this as you approach retirement. Some states may change or eliminate their Social Security benefit tax in the future.

The federal government taxes Social Security benefits, too

Even if you don’t live in one of the 12 states above, you could still owe federal Social Security benefit taxes. It all depends on your provisional income. This is your AGI plus any nontaxable interest and half your annual Social Security benefit.

The following table shows how much of your benefit the federal government can tax based on your provisional income and tax filing status:

Percentage of Social Security Benefits Subject to Federal Taxes

Provisional Income for Single Filers

Provisional Income for Married Couples Filing Jointly

0%

Less than $25,000

Less than $32,000

Up to 50%

$25,000 to $34,000

$32,000 to $44,000

Up to 85%

More than $34,000

More than $44,000

Data source: Social Security Administration.

It’s possible these thresholds could change over time, so double-check this every few years and before you sign up for benefits so you understand what you might owe.

How to avoid Social Security benefit taxes

Avoiding Social Security benefit taxes isn’t always possible, but some pull it off with careful planning. One of the best things you can do to avoid these taxes is stash money in a Roth IRA. Unlike most retirement accounts, Roth IRAs require you to pay taxes on your contributions in the year you make them. But in exchange, you get tax-free withdrawals later on. This means you can take out as much as you want each year and the federal government won’t count it when calculating your provisional income.

If you have access to a Roth 401(k) through your job, you can use this as well. The government taxes these funds the same way as Roth IRA funds, and you can roll your Roth 401(k) over into a Roth IRA if you leave the job.

Those who have a lot of savings in traditional IRAs or 401(k)s might also consider a Roth IRA conversion. This is where you change tax-deferred savings to Roth savings by paying taxes on the amount you’re converting that year. But you have to be careful about doing this. It will raise your taxable income for the year. If you convert too much at once, it could bump you up a tax bracket, forcing you to pay a larger percentage of your savings to the government. You can avoid this by doing several smaller Roth IRA conversions in successive years.

Another thing you can try to reduce your likelihood of owing Social Security benefit taxes is limit your spending in retirement. Doing this could help you cut the amount you withdraw from traditional retirement accounts, thereby reducing your AGI. But you probably shouldn’t rely upon this strategy alone, as you can’t always control how much you spend. Unexpected costs may force you to withdraw more than you’d like to. That’s why having some Roth savings on hand is a better approach if you’re trying to reduce your tax liability.

It’s best to start thinking about all of this now, even if you’re not claiming Social Security yet. Knowing how much you could owe will help you avoid surprises at tax time. But be prepared to adapt if your retirement plans or the rules surrounding Social Security benefit taxation change over time.

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