Since 1935, the U.S. Social Security Administration has provided benefits to retired or disabled individuals and their family members. Since the 1980s, some recipients of these benefits who meet certain income levels have been required to pay taxes on the money they receive. While Social Security benefits are not counted as part of gross income, they are included in combined income, which the IRS uses to determine if benefits are taxable.
Social Security benefits do not count as gross income. However, the IRS does count them in your combined income for the purpose of determining if you must pay taxes on your benefits.
Gross Income vs. Combined Income
To calculate income taxes, most taxpayers must calculate their adjusted gross income, which includes all income from wages, investments and other sources. Social Security recipients, on the other hand, must calculate their combined income, which includes adjusted gross income in addition to nontaxable interest and Social Security benefits. This combined income figure can be used to determine whether or not you will have to pay taxes on your benefits, and roughly how much of your benefits are taxable.
Combined Income for Individuals
To calculate your combined income, add together your adjusted gross income, the value of nontaxable interest income, plus half of your total Social Security benefits for the year. If you are an individual taxpayer, and your combined income is less than $25,000, you likely do not have to pay taxes on your benefits. If your combined income falls between $25,000 and $34,000, up to 50 percent of your benefits may be taxable. If your combined income exceeds $34,000, expect to pay taxes on up to 85 percent of your benefits.
Married Couples Filing Jointly
The combined income limits are slightly different for married couples who file jointly. Those who have less than $32,000 in combined income generally do not have to pay taxes on their benefits. Married couples who file jointly and have a combined income between $32,000 and $44,000 may have to pay taxes on 50 percent of benefits, while those whose combined income exceeds $44,000 may be taxed on up to 85 percent of the value of their Social Security benefits. The maximum percentage of any Social Security recipient's benefits that can be taxed is limited to 85 percent.
Married Couples Filing Separately
Married couples who file separate tax returns and live together for any part of the year should expect to pay taxes on their Social Security benefits. Regardless of combined income level, all Social Security benefits are taxable for married couples who file separately.
Emily Beach works in the commercial construction industry in Maryland. She received her LEED accreditation from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2008 and is in the process of working towards an Architectural Hardware Consultant certification from the Door and Hardware Institute. She received a bachelor's degree in economics and management from Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.