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How to Avoid a 2018 income Tax Shock

Written by Lester Detterbeck.

tax shock womanDid your paycheck get a nice bump in the last few weeks? Employers are just starting to use the newly issued IRS withholding tables for 2018. All things being equal, employees may see a 5%-15% reduction in their federal tax withholding, resulting in a boost in their take home pay. Who doesn’t love that? However, the question is, when you file your 2018 tax return a year from now, will you owe a substantial amount? Has your withholding been reduced too much? How do you avoid a tax shock?

The various changes of tax reform passed in December plus lower withholding may lead to unexpected results. Itemized deductions were generally reduced; in some cases, in major ways.  Standard deductions were doubled. Income tax rates were lowered. Exemptions were eliminated. Lots of moving pieces to consider.

Let’s take a look at an example, as presented by the WSJ last Saturday. Sarah is a New York resident. For 2017, she had $200,000 of wages and other income and $33,000 of itemized deductions, including $28,000 for state and local income taxes. Her federal tax, including AMT, was $41,400. Her withholding was set at $41,500, so that she would receive a tax refund of about $100.

For 2018, Sarah has the same income and deductions, and she doesn’t adjust her withholding certificate, even though her itemized deductions are reduced by $18,000 to $15,000. Using the 2018 withholding tables and her withholding certificate (W-4) from 2017, her employer reduces her withholding and increases her take-home pay by $5,300, about $100 per week.

Here’s the problem: Because her deductions were greatly reduced and she lost her personal exemption, her income taxes will only be reduced by $500 in 2018. She’ll owe $4,700 (plus a penalty for underpayment) come April 2019.

All taxpayers, even those that don’t get paychecks, need to get ahead of curve and project their income taxes for 2018 and review how tax reform is going to impact them. You need to do it early. Sarah can change her withholding now (by increasing withholding $100 per week-back to what it was) to avoid a big tax shock in April 2019. In addition, as you and your tax professional review the elements of your 2018 projection, you may identify some changes that made now could reduce your ultimate 2018 income taxes.

The IRS has put together a withholding calculator, https://www.irs.gov/individuals/irs-withholding-calculator that seems to work fairly well with simple returns. It’s a “black box” with little detail of the calculations.

At DWM, we consider our role in tax planning a very important element of the value we provide to our Total Wealth Management clients. We don’t prepare returns. However, since our inception, we’ve been doing projections focused on eliminating surprises and often finding potential tax savings ideas to review with our clients and their CPAs. This year we are using BNA Income Tax Planner software to make sure that all the new tax provisions are being considered and calculated properly as we are doing the projections. We’ve done about dozen so far.

We’ve already seen some major eliminations of itemized deductions on projections we’ve done. One couple lost over $100,000 of itemized deductions, primarily due to the new $10,000 cap on state and local income taxes and elimination of miscellaneous deductions. Similar to the example above, without a change in their W-4s and, therefore, a change in their withholding, they would have owed over $30,000 in federal taxes in April 2019.

Tax reform didn’t have much impact on IL income taxes, as taxes are passed primarily on adjusted gross income. However, the full year tax rate of 4.95% in IL is roughly 16% more than the effective 2017 rate. In SC, where the state tax is based on taxable income, the tax will generally be going up for those taxpayers with large itemized deductions in the past. SC tax in 2018 will likely rise at the rate of 7% of the amount of lowered deductions and exemptions as compared to 2017, all other items being equal.

We encourage you to prepare or get assistance to prepare a 2018 income tax projection now and check it in the fall as well. Even if you haven’t received a larger paycheck recently, it’s really important to go through this process to avoid tax shocks and, maybe, even find some opportunities to reduce your taxes for 2018. 

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