Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Social Security Tax Cut May Not Apply to You

Congress has reached a new level of confusing the American public. We have the new 2-month Social Security tax cut. And, it applies to all working Americans (except those like Senators and Representatives whose wages as elected officials I think are exempted from Social Security). So, for the months of January and February, we all get a decrease of 2% in our Social Security taxes. Fantastic!

Now, for some explanation. Generally, a person pays into the Social Security system at the rate of 7.65% of pay up to the Social Security Wage Base (I believe that is $110,100 for 2012). Above that level of wages, a person pays in at the rate of 1.45% of pay. And, for each dollar that a person pays in, their employer pays in an equal amount. If you are self-employed, you are both the employer and the employee, so you pay both parts.

Now, that sounds unfair, doesn't it, that you stop paying in the Old-Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance part (the first 6.2%) after your pay reaches the wage base? Well, you do need to consider that any pay that you receive that is above the wage base is not used in computing your eventual Social Security benefit. For those who are still with me, the other 1.45% is used for Health Insurance, i.e., Medicare.

Here is the good and fair news -- we all get that that cut in our OASDI (the 6.2% piece) during the months of January and February 2012 from 6.2% to 4.2%. But, some of us are deemed to apparently have no need for the extra 2%, so we have the honor of getting to pay a recapture tax, an increase to your federal income tax.

Yeehaw, gotta love it, a recapture tax. I know, what in the world is a recapture tax. Read on, poor reader.

Start by dividing $110,100 (the wage base) by 12 (to get a monthly rate) and you get $9,175. Double that to get a two-month rate and you are up to $18,350.

Now, suppose your Social Security wages for January and February are more than $18,350. [For those who aren't sure, Social Security wages look a lot like your gross pay before taxes are taken out. If you pay for certain welfare benefits on a pre-tax basis, they get taken out. And, if you defer compensation to a 401(k) or similar plan or even to a nonqualified deferred compensation plan to the extent that the amount is vested, those get included.]

If you are fortunate enough to still have your Social Security wages for that two-month period exceed $18,350, then you have the honor of paying a recapture tax calculated as follows:

  1. Subtract $18,350 from your Social Security wages for the months of January and February combined. If the answer is 0 or less, then this doesn't apply to you. If the answer is greater than $18,350, then call it $18,350.
  2. Take the result from step 1 and multiply it by 2%
  3. This is the additional income tax that you will owe for 2012 and it is called a recapture tax.
Think of the scenarios. Lots of companies pay bonuses for your performance during the previous year (2011, in this case) during January or February. For people with base pay less than $110,100, your bonus could put you into recapture territory. Maybe you are fortunate enough to be entitled to a really big bonus for 2011 paid during January or February 2012. It might run through recapture territory into I-Don't-Owe-Recapture-Taxes-On-This Territory. And, then, there are the people whose bonuses will get paid during the first half of March. They get the old-fashioned treatment.

Got it? Good!

Now, think about your paycheck. If you are like lots of Americans, the payroll of your company gets handled by an outside provider. And, miraculously, once a week, once every two weeks, once or twice every month, the right amount of pay gets deposited electronically into your checking (or savings) account. Hmm, do you think that will happen now?

The IRS thinks that it may not. In fact, they have already published rules for companies and individuals that mess this up. Doesn't that just build up your confidence?

So, why do we have this nonsense? In my opinion, it's all because our government no longer chooses to govern. Instead, the two major parties wage a constant battle to see which can find a way to embarrass the other. Does it matter if a law is a good law? Of course not. Does it matter if the law can be administered? Of  course not. Does it matter if the law says what it is purported to say? Of course not.

The Democrats appear to have won this game of shame. It's not their first win. But, Republican lovers shouldn't feel left out. They have won the shame game about the same number of times.

So, now we have a middle-class tax cut ... unless your bonus gets paid at the wrong time, or unless you make too much overtime during January and February, or unless ...


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  2. Merci. Mon français n'est pas tellement bien, j'ai donc du mal à lire vos blogs. Envoyez-moi un e-mail à johnhlowell@gmail.com de me dire ce que vous aimeriez faire.

  3. John - quick question. Did I get this right and we can't time our way out of the 2% recapture tax by accelerating our 401(k) deferrals to 100% pay in early 2012. The 401(k) deferrals are not substracted from the calculation, correct?

  4. David, I think you have it right. 401(k) deferrals are deferred compensation within the meaning of 3121(v) and are not exempt from FICA.