Social Security’s Means Test

Very little in the U.S. tax code draws the ire of taxpayers and creates the confusion of the taxation of Social Security benefits. The author provides details about the taxes surrounding Social Security in an attempt to clear up some of the confusion.

Very little in the U.S. tax code draws the ire of taxpayers and creates the confusion of the taxation of Social Security benefits.  It is a toxic mix of complexity and unfairness that is assured to infuriate seniors.

There are four things to know about these taxes.  First, the rules create marginal taxes rates that are among the highest in the entire tax code.  Second, the rules affects generally people who have earnings outside of Social Security of $15,000-$40,000. Third, the people hit hardest by these rules are middle class people who saved for retirement with tax-deferred accounts. Finally, there are socio and economic reasons that these taxes are reaching an ever widening audience of retirees.

It may make seniors feel better knowing that the tax is really a means-tested clawback of benefits from retirees with substantial outside means.  Tax revenue goes to the general fund.  The revenue collected by this means-test is returned to Social Security and Medicare, where it serves to prolong the ability of these systems to pay scheduled benefits.

This distinction is lost on seniors as they find out what ‘substantial outside income’ means to the IRS. The thresholds involved generally select someone who collects between $15,000 and $35,000 in income outside of Social Security.  This group includes many people who saved in tax-deferred retirement accounts because these tools push past wages into your current income.  Ironically enough, many of these people who used these accounts to avoid taxes will end-up paying effective tax rates that can approach 50%.

The rules on these taxes use your income to determine the amount of your Social Security benefits which are taxable.  Once your income rises above a threshold, every dollar of income that you earn exposes more benefits from Social Security to taxation up to 85% of your benefits.  This means that $1 of income can create a tax liability based as much as $1.85 of additional income.

Annual Social Security Benefits Figure 1. Taxes for Single non-Itemizer, Age 67 Security Income, 2013
MAGI ThresholdsOn SS Benefits Federal Tax
Entry Level Exit Level Tax On Incremental Income Statutory Rates Average Tax Rate Max Tax Rate
$10,000 $20,000 $33,706 $3,355 on $13,706 10-15% 24.48% 28.3%
$16,000 $17,000 $36,706 $5,182 on $19,706 10-15% 26.3% 47.1%
$20,000 $15,000 $38,706 $6,757 on $23,706 10-25% 28.5% 47%
MAGI, Modified Adjusted Gross Income = Your adjusted gross income
+ Nontaxable interest
+ ½ of your Social Security benefits

Here is a practical example.  My father sold his house for $300,000 which was subsequently invested at roughly 5%.  His tax bill was small while he lived in his house.  The $15,000 of interest earned was taxed at 15%.  Unfortunately the additional interest income exposed an additional $9,750 of his Social Security benefits to taxes at 25%.  In conjunction, his additional $15,000 of income created an incremental tax liability of $4,963, or 31%.  That is a lot of money for someone who hadn’t paid $4,000 in income taxes since he retired.

The change in his income also affected his eligibility for deductions and credits.  The formula for medical deductions on the schedule A for example lowers the amount of your deduction as your income rises.  Under today’s tax code the reduction is 10% (for people born after 1949) or $2,475 in the case above.  That translates into an increase of $600 in tax bill.  Someone today in my father’s situation would pay roughly $5,300 in additional taxes on the incremental income of $15,000.

Understand that these rules will affect a larger audience over time.  The threshold which triggers the tax dates back to 1983, when $25,000 had the equivalent buying power of roughly $59,800.  Separately, Americans have increased their reliance upon tax-deferred investments like 401Ks which push past wages through a retiree’s current income.  Bottom line, more people will pay the tax over time.

IRS data (Excel 2012) confirms this outcome.  The number of returns with taxable Social Security benefits has more than tripled since 1990.   In 2012 roughly 26 million income tax returns contained Social Security benefits.  Of those, nearly 18 million returns contained taxable benefits, exposing more than 220 billion dollars of benefits to taxes and generating roughly 45 billion in revenue which was returned to Social Security and Medicare.

To understand the anger, you have to strip away the side issues.  People like my dad could not care less that you are taxing different revenue streams.  He does not care where the money goes.  He knows that his income went up $1000 and his tax bill went up $471.  He knows that on Mitt Romney’s worst day he pays 39.6% plus the 3.8% net investment tax on his income.

It is no wonder that seniors fume. The government applies a means test that focuses the highest tax rates in the entire system on middle class income. These rules draw on savers who have demonstrated a distaste for taxes. These laws turn a system which was intended to alleviate poverty in the elderly into a system which fosters it.  It is a wonder why everyone isn’t fuming.

About the Author

Brenton Smith (A.K.A. Joe The Economist) writes nationally on the issue of Social Security reform with work appearing in Forbes,, MarketWatch,, and regional media like The Denver Post.