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Tax withholding: How to get it right

FS-2019-4, March 2019

The federal income tax is a pay-as-you-go tax. Taxpayers pay the tax as they earn or receive income during the year. Taxpayers can avoid a surprise at tax time by checking their withholding amount. The IRS urges everyone to do a Paycheck Checkup early in 2019, even if they did one in 2018. This includes anyone who receives a pension or annuity. Here’s what to know about withholding and why checking it is important.

Understand tax withholding

An employer generally withholds income tax from their employee’s paycheck and pays it to the IRS on their behalf. Wages paid, along with any amounts withheld, are reflected on the Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement, the employee receives at the end of the year.

How withholding is determined

The amount withheld depends on:

  • The amount of income earned and
  • Three types of information an employee gives to their employer on Form W–4, Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate:
    • Filing status: Either the single rate or the lower married rate.
    • Number of withholding allowances claimed: Each allowance claimed reduces the amount withheld.
    • Additional withholding: An employee can request an additional amount to be withheld from each paycheck.

Note: Employees must specify a filing status and their number of withholding allowances on Form W–4. They cannot specify only a dollar amount of withholding.

Everyone should check withholding

The IRS recommends that everyone do a Paycheck Checkup early in 2019. Though especially important for anyone with a 2018 tax bill, it’s also important for anyone whose refund is larger or smaller than expected. By changing withholding now, taxpayers can get the refund they want next year. For those who owe, boosting tax withholding early in 2019 is the best way to head off a tax bill a year from now. In addition, taxpayers should always check their withholding when a major life event occurs or when their income changes.

When to check withholding:

  • Early in the year
  • If the tax law changes
  • When life changes occur:
    • Lifestyle – Marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, home purchase, retirement, filing chapter 11 bankruptcy
    • Wage income – The taxpayer or their spouse starts or stops working or starts or stops a second job
    • Taxable income not subject to withholding – Interest, dividends, capital gains, self-employment and gig economy income and IRA (including certain Roth IRA) distributions
    • Itemized deductions or tax credits - Medical expenses, taxes, interest expense, gifts to charity, dependent care expenses, education credit, Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit

How to check withholding

  • Use the Withholding Calculator on IRS.gov.
    The Withholding Calculator works for most employees by helping them determine whether they need to give their employer a new Form W-4. They can use their results from the calculator to help fill out the form and adjust their income tax withholding. If they receive pension income, they can use the results from the calculator to complete a Form W-4P, Withholding Certificate for Pension and Annuity Payments, and give it to their payer.
     
  • Use the instructions in Publication 505, Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax.
    Taxpayers with more complex situations may need to use Publication 505 instead of the Withholding Calculator. This includes employees who owe self-employment tax, the alternative minimum tax or tax on unearned income from dependents. It can also help those who receive non-wage income such as dividends, capital gains, rents and royalties. The publication includes worksheets and examples to guide taxpayers through these special situations.

Change withholding

To change their tax withholding, employees can use the results from the Withholding Calculator to determine if they should:

  • Complete a new Form W-4 and submit it to their employer. Don’t file with the IRS.

Those who don’t pay taxes through withholding, or don’t pay enough tax that way, may still use the Withholding Calculator to determine if they have to pay estimated tax quarterly during the year to the IRS.  Those who are self-employed generally pay tax this way. See Form 1040-ES, Estimated Taxes for Individuals, for details.

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