If you are dealing with a job loss and are currently receiving unemployment benefits, there are a couple of steps you can take to make sure you aren't hit with an unexpectedly large bill from the IRS when tax season rolls around next year.
That's because, though it may come as a surprise, in many cases unemployment benefits are taxable. "The IRS looks at this money as deferred compensation," says William Dickens, a university distinguished professor of economics at Northeastern University.
Depending on where you live, you may need to pay state or local taxes on your unemployment benefits on top of paying federal taxes on them. At the federal level, unemployment is taxed as ordinary income; but state by state, tax rates vary, as does whether unemployment benefits are viewed as income.
"It gets complicated because some states don't tax, some tax the full amount, then other states exempt certain fractions," says Dickens. States like Florida and Texas, for example, don't impose any state income taxes. Meanwhile, unemployment benefits are tax exempt in New Jersey, California, and a handful of other states.
The good news is that, in general, getting square with the IRS is relatively simple. Here are some tips to help.
Just as employees have taxes automatically withheld from a paycheck from an employer, you can opt to do the same with your unemployment benefits. To set that in motion, you have to submit IRS form W-4V to make a voluntary withholding request of your federal income taxes.
This form is separate from your application for unemployment benefits. You can submit it through your state's unemployment insurance program.
Just keep in mind that every state is different, so be sure to connect with your local unemployment office to make sure you aren't overlooking any requirements.
With the W-4V, you're only able to withhold 10% of your earnings for taxes. No more, no less. In order to cease this withholding option, you'll have to submit a new W-4V form.
Video by David Fang
If you're already a freelancer or another type of self-employed worker, you may be used to paying estimated quarterly taxes to the IRS. You can do the same for your unemployment benefits. This is another way to mitigate the risk of having to pay one big bill in the spring when you file your taxes.
Typically with estimated quarterly taxes, you would pay in April, June, September, and January. But this year, estimated tax payments that would have been due on April 15 and June 15 are now due July 15, 2020.
However, if you don't want to use the W-4V form or pay estimated taxes quarterly, another option is to set a portion of each unemployment check aside for taxes in a dedicated savings account, either manually or automatically, so the money is there waiting for you when it's time to settle up with the IRS.
When you file your taxes in April 2021, you'll also need your 1099-G form, which will show your total unemployment compensation payments for the year. You will need to include this number in your total income when filing your tax return. Make sure check with your unemployment office whether you can simply access the 1099-G electronically through your online portal, if you'll automatically receive a copy in the mail, or if you need to request a paper copy.
Taking these steps can give you a measure of control now and help avoid any big surprises next year.
Video by David Fang
Before you worry about how your benefits will be taxed, you have to successfully start claiming them. Forty million people have filed for unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic. Here are some Grow resources to help you navigate the process.
Marianne Hayes is a freelance writer and content marketing specialist. She covers everything from personal finance to spiritual growth. Her work has been published in MagnifyMoney, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and Forbes. In addition to writing, she teaches local storytelling workshops in Tampa and is a hopeless bookworm.
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