14 October 2015
Payroll Taxes go by many names. Of the ones that are fit to print in a family blog you might know them better as social security taxes, medicare taxes, FICA, or self-employment taxes. These are all accurate to a degree, but payroll taxes covers all of them, so that's how I'll refer to them.
Payroll taxes are the federal taxes collected to support the Social Security and Medicare programs. The rate of taxation is 6.2% of wages up to $118,500 (in 2015) for Social Security (with a matching amount from your employer) and 1.45% of wages for Medicare (with a matching amount from your employer). There is no wage cap for the Medicare tax. There is, however, an additional Medicare tax of 0.9% on wages greater than $200,000 for single tax filers and $250,000 if you are married filing jointly. (Employers are not required to match the additional Medicare tax.)
Note that payroll taxes are paid only on wages, salary, or tips. Income from (real estate) rents or investments are not subject to payroll taxes. Although, the 3.8% Net Investment Income Tax to support Medicare definitely makes this a grey area.
For the majority of taxpayers - wage-earning employees earning less than $200,000 per year - payroll taxes are fairly straight-forward. You have 7.65% of your gross income withheld from every paycheck. That money is sent off to the government in exchange for the promise that when we are older there will be a retirement stipend and healthcare benefits waiting for us.
If you're not in that group of taxpayers working as employees for $200,000 or less, there are some additional complexities to the payroll tax system that you should probably know.
The Additional Medicare Tax
As previously stated, if you are single and earning more than $200,000 per year, or MFJ and earning over $250,000, you are required to pay an additional medicare tax of 0.9%. Your employer is required to withhold the additional tax from your salary and pay it to the trust fund for you. However, your employer might not be aware of all of your income. Let's look at some examples:
Stan is single and has two consulting jobs. ABC company pays him $140,000 per year and XYZ company pays him $175,000. Stan is required to pay the additional Medicare tax on $115,000 - the amount his combined $315,000 income exceeds the $200,000 threshold for single filers. But, neither ABC nor XYZ is withholding the additional Medicare tax from his salary. The companies' payroll departments are not aware that Stan's total income requires him to pay the additional Medicare tax.
Rita and Frank are married and file jointly. Rita makes $190,000 as a lawyer at the firm of Dewey, Cheatham & Howe. Frank also earns $190,000 per year as an engineer for Wobbles Construction. When they file they will owe the 0.9% additional Medicare tax on $130,000, the amount their combined $380,000 exceeds the $250,000 threshold for MJF taxpayers. Again, neither employer is withholding the additional Medicare tax.
If your employer does not withhold the tax you are still required to pay it. Your options for this are to adjust your withholding on your W-4 to account for the additional Medicare tax, make quarterly payments to the IRS, or pay it at the end of the year when you file your taxes. Be aware, however, that if you wait until the end of the year to pay it you could find yourself subject to a penalty for the under withholding of tax.
People who are self-employed are required to pay both the employee and employer share of payroll taxes. When combined these are known as self-employment taxes. There is a bit of a strange formula for calculating the self-employment tax. If you just left it at 2 X 7.65% = 15.3% to cover the 7.65% paid by the employer and employee you would end up paying at a higher rate than an employed wage-earner. Instead, you need to account for the fact the 7.65% paid by the employer is never part of the employee's gross wages. Therefore the self-employment tax rate is [15.3% X (1 - 0.0765)] = [15.3% X .9235] = 14.130%.
I have added a few slides that better explain this formula:
Half of self-employment taxes are also taken as an adjustment to income on the front page of form 1040. This makes sense (hard to believe sense sometimes makes it into the tax code, but in this case it did!). People who work as employees are not required to pay federal income taxes on the amount their employer pays in payroll taxes on their behalf, so it is only fair the self-employed are afforded that same allowance.
One final note on payroll taxes. If you are an employer and you withhold payroll taxes from your employees, make certain you are paying those taxes to the government as required. The government takes a very stern stance on the matter. If you fail to pay your regular taxes it is considered stealing from the government, and you will pay a small penalty for doing it. However, if you fail to pay payroll taxes withheld from your employees it is considered stealing from your workers. The penalty for doing that is 100% of the tax owed and can also land you in prison. Business people are frequently creative financiers, but I would strongly caution you against getting creative with payroll taxes. It is not worth it.
If you have any questions about payroll taxes, please contact me.