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Social Security may be as taxable as it is taxing


Dear Mr. Berko:

My father recently turned 65 and is thrilled that he just began receiving Social Security checks. I am thrilled for him. However, I am 33 years old and I don’t think Social Security will be around when it is time to send me a monthly check. My mother, who turns 62 next month, will wait until she is 65 (to get the higher amount) to collect her checks.

Two men told my father they don’t pay taxes on their Social Security income and they never have since they began getting checks in 1999. Another told my father that he is certain that he pays taxes on some but not on all of his Social Security checks.

I’ve called Social Security a half-dozen times this year, but the line is always busy and I don’t want my boss to see me holding and wasting his business time for an answer to my father’s problem. One of the ladies at my office told me to write to you because “he knows the answer to everything.”

Can you tell me what is going on? I don’t read your column but I will now.  D.M., Des Moines

Dear D.M.:

I know a little bit about Social Security because 68 percent of the residents in South Florida receive some kind of Social Security check each month. And that is good because most of them earned it. It is also bad that 21 percent of the 68 percent who receive checks have not earned it. This number is getting bigger and is one reason you may not get checks like your parents. In 2038, when you turn in your computer password, today’s Social Security will look different than it did when your father began receiving his checks.

So to answer your question, I called my Social Security maven. She told me that some people who get Social Security checks do not have to pay taxes on their entitlements, while others, depending on their incomes, will have a tax liability. I will tell you what she told me, but I want you to cross-check my reply with your accountant.

Here is what she said, almost verbatim, from her lips to my typewriter: If you file a federal income tax return as an “individual filer” and have a combined income between $25,000 and $34,000, you might be required to pay federal taxes on 50 percent of your annual Social Security benefits. However, if your combined income is more than $34,000, then 85 percent of your annual Social Security benefits may be taxed by the Internal Revenue Service.

Before I proceed, you should be asking, “What is the definition of ‘combined income’?” If you are, then I will tell you: Combined income is your adjusted gross income, plus municipal bond interest, plus one-half of your annual Social Security benefits. Yes, you must include your tax-free bond interest.

If you file a joint tax return and your combined income is between $32,000 and $44,000, you will probably pay taxes on 50 percent of your annual Social Security benefits. However, if your combined income exceeds $44,000, then 85 percent of your annual Social Security benefits could be taxed.

Notice I said “you may have to pay,” “you might be required” or “you will probably pay.” And for good reason, there are always exceptions to the rule. If I fail to include those caveats, my mailbox will be jammed with letters from readers who will brag about their exceptions and tell me I am wrong.

Here is a thought for your father that may make his life easier if his combined income triggers a tax on his Social Security benefits. The IRS does not mandate that Social Security withhold federal taxes from his checks. Get a form W-AV from the IRS, complete it, sign it and send it to your local Social Security office. Let Uncle Sam do it because it may be easier than having to pay quarterly estimated taxes.

Please address your financial questions to Malcolm Berko, P.O. Box 1416, Boca Raton, Fla. 33429 or visit his Web site at www.berkoradio.com.

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