Taxation of Retirement Income

When you retire, you leave behind many things—the daily grind, commuting, maybe your old home—but one thing you keep is a tax bill. In fact, income taxes can be your single largest expense in retirement.

Taxation of Social Security Benefits

Many older Americans are surprised to learn they might have to pay tax on part of the Social Security income they receive. Whether you have to pay such taxes will depend on how much overall retirement income you and your spouse receive, and whether you file joint or separate tax returns.

Check the base income amounts in IRS Publication 915, Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits. Generally, the higher that total income amount, the greater the taxable part of your benefits. This can range from 50 to 85 percent depending on your income. There is no tax break at all if you're married and file separate returns.

The IRS also provides worksheets you can use to figure out what's taxable and how much you might owe in taxes on your retirement income. You can find these worksheets in IRS Publication 554, Tax Guide for Seniors.

Taxes on Pension Income

You have to pay income tax on your pension and on withdrawals from any tax-deferred investments—such as traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and similar retirement plans, and tax-deferred annuities—in the year you take the money. The taxes that are due reduce the amount you have left to spend.

You will owe federal income tax at your regular rate as you receive the money from pension annuities and periodic pension payments. But if you take a direct lump-sum payout from your pension instead, you must pay the total tax due when you file your return for the year you receive the money. In either case, your employer will withhold taxes as the payments are made, so at least some of what's due will have been prepaid. If you transfer a lump sum directly to an IRA, taxes will be deferred until you start withdrawing funds.

Smart Tip: Taxes on Pension Income Vary by State
It’s a good idea to check the different state tax rules on pension income. Some states do not tax pension payments while others do—and that can influence people to consider moving when they retire. States can’t tax pension money you earned within their borders if you’ve moved your legal residence to another state. For instance, if you worked in Minnesota, but now live in Florida, which has no state income tax, you don’t owe any Minnesota income tax on the pension you receive from your former employer.

Taxes on IRAs and 401(k)s

Once you start taking out income from a traditional IRA, you owe tax on the earnings portion of those withdrawals at your regular income tax rate. If you deducted any portion of your contributions, you'll owe tax at the same rate on the full amount of each withdrawal. You can find instructions for calculating what you owe in IRS Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements.

If you have a Roth IRA, you'll pay no tax at all on your earnings as they accumulate or when you withdraw following the rules. But you must have the account for at least five years before you qualify for tax-free provisions on earnings and interest.

When you receive income from your traditional 401(k), 403(b) or 457 salary reduction plans, you'll owe income tax on those amounts. This income, which is produced by the combination of your contributions, any employer contributions and earnings on the contributions, is taxed at your regular ordinary rate. Keep in mind that withdrawals of contributions and earnings from Roth 401(k) accounts are not taxed provided the withdrawal meets IRS requirements.

Managing Taxable Accounts

Interest paid on investments in taxable accounts is taxed at your regular rate. But other income—from both your capital gains and qualifying dividends—is taxed at the long-term capital gains rate of between 20 percent and 0 percent, depending on your tax bracket. This is true when you have owned the investment for more than one year. This lower tax rate on most of your earnings is one of the major advantages of taxable accounts, though it's not the only one. There are no required withdrawals from taxable accounts and no tax penalty for taking income from these accounts before you turn 59½. This means you have greater flexibility in deciding which investments to tap for income and which to preserve for later needs.

There are also ways to minimize the taxes that may be due. You can use capital losses on some investments to offset capital gains on others. Your tax professional can explain how you can bunch or defer income to a single tax year or take advantage of tax deductions and credits. Or he or she may recommend investments that pay little current income but have strong growth potential. These could include index funds, exchange-traded funds, managed accounts and real estate as well as individual securities and mutual funds. Another approach a tax professional may suggest is to make charitable gifts of assets that have increased in value. This technique allows you to avoid capital gains taxes while taking a tax deduction for the current value of the asset.

You can't avoid income taxes during retirement. But once you stop working, you stop paying taxes for Social Security and Medicare, which can add several thousand dollars to your bottom line.

Planning for Gifts and Bequests

As you look ahead, you may be thinking about giving some of your assets to family members or friends, which is often beneficial to both you and them as long as you can afford to live comfortably on your remaining retirement income.

Transferring wealth is often a good way to avoid incurring estate taxes—and that's in turn good because these taxes can take a larger bite of your assets than even the highest income tax rate. In addition, some states impose inheritance taxes at various rates on what your heirs receive from your estate.

But the good news is that prior to your death, you can make gifts to whomever you wish—and you can do so up to a certain amount without paying taxes. The ceiling changes from time to time. In 2015, you can make a gift of up to $14,000 per year, or $28,000 per year if you're married, to as many individuals as you like without ever owing federal gift taxes on the amount. If you do intend to split your gift with a spouse and give up to $28,000 a year to any one individual, you'll need to file Form 709 with your taxes to be sure the IRS is notified.

In addition, you can make gifts larger than $14,000 tax-free to your beneficiaries over the course of your lifetime. You have to follow IRS rules carefully to comply with the lifetime exclusion provisions. For more details, read the instructions for IRS Form 709.

There are pros and cons to making tax-free gifts. On the upside, giving the money away reduces your taxable estate—that is, what will be subject to estate taxes when you die—while also helping your beneficiaries. But on the downside, once the gift is given, if you need access to that money later in your retirement, it's gone.