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You may be surprised what retirement income is taxed and what isn’t

The day will come when you say goodbye to having a manager. You won’t have to endure any more annual employee evaluations. You will no longer have to work unless you want to.

And with the end to your full-time employment years, you probably hope your tax bill will go down. It’s a perk that many people assume comes along with retirement.

Except, as Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

“There was a time when older Americans received a lot of tax breaks,” Bob Carlson, editor of Retirement Watch, wrote recently in an article for Forbes. “There still are a few breaks for those who are older and less well off. But for most Americans it’s dangerous to believe your taxes and tax rates are going to decline in retirement. Governments at all levels know that older Americans are where the money is. It’s one of the largest generations in history and definitely the wealthiest. Governments need money, and they have no choice but to find ways to impose them on older Americans. That’s why few older Americans have seen their taxes and tax rates decline over time and aren’t likely to in the future.”

So, as you plan for retirement, don’t assume your tax rate will be lower.

“You may no longer be earning a paycheck, but don’t forget, money is still coming in the door in the form of pension payments or individual retirement account distributions, both of which are taxable,” reported CNBC’s Contessa Brewer.

Read: Don’t fall for these common retirement myths

If you haven’t retired yet, you may not be aware that your Social Security benefit may be subject to federal income taxes — as much as 85 percent of it. Whether you’re taxed depends on your filing status and other income you receive.

According to the Social Security Administration: “You must pay taxes on your benefits if you file a federal tax return as an ‘individual’ and your ‘combined income’ exceeds $25,000. If you file a joint return, you must pay taxes if you and your spouse have ‘combined income’ of more than $32,000. If you are married and file a separate return, you probably will have to pay taxes on your benefits.”

Here’s a helpful article on the topic from Forbes: Do You Need To Pay Tax On Your Social Security Benefits?

“Many older Americans are surprised to learn they might have to pay tax on part of the Social Security income they receive,” the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) says. “Whether you have to pay such taxes will depend on how much overall retirement income you and your spouse receive, and whether you file joint or separate tax returns.”

Getting a pension?

FINRA points out you’ll have to pay income tax on your pension and on withdrawals from any tax-deferred investments — such as traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and similar retirement plans, and tax-deferred annuities — in the year you take the money. Withdrawals from the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), the federal government’s version of a 401(k) for employees, is also taxable.

From FEDweek read: TSP in Tax Season

And what about your state taxes?

“Some states do not tax pension payments, while others do — and that can influence people to consider moving when they retire,” says FINRA, which has an easy-to-understand rundown on what retirement income is subject to taxes. Read: Taxation of Retirement Income

Wondering about the tax treatment of the annuity you purchased?

Here’s some information from Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine: How Annuity Withdrawals Are Taxed. Also check out: How 6 Types of Retirement Income Are Taxed

As Kiplinger’s Sandra Block writes: “One of the biggest mistakes retirees make when calculating their living expenses is forgetting how big a bite state and federal taxes can take out of savings. And how you tap your accounts can make a big difference in what you ultimately pay to Uncle Sam.”

Your Thoughts
Were you surprised at your retirement tax bill? Send your comments to

Retirement Rants and Raves
I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. What do you like about retirement? What came as a surprise?

If you haven’t retired, what are your financial concerns? You can rant or rave. This space is yours. It’s a chance for you to express what’s on your mind. Send your comments to Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

In last week’s retirement newsletter, I asked: Are you afraid of outliving your savings?

Jan McCarthy of Keswick, Va., wrote, “I’m always afraid there will not be enough money for us to live on after we retire, which is one reason we are both still working past retirement age. . . . We both come from middle class families who worked hard all of their lives and supported us, but who were unable to save, let alone invest, because it was sometimes a hand-to-mouth existence. Like most in our generation, we did better than our parents, and were able to help support them in their old age. We, too, have worked hard all of our lives, but we have saved and invested conservatively and should be okay through retirement, no matter how long we live.”

Anthony from central Florida has done a lot of thinking and calculating to figure out how to make his and his wife’s retirement income last.

“My wife and I will turn 71 later this year,” he wrote. “The Social Security Life Expectancy calculator result for us is 85.6 years and 87.6 years respectively. I’ve also used more detailed calculators that require fairly detailed lifestyle and health input. These tend to result in a somewhat longer life expectancy. There is female longevity in my spouse’s family, not so much for the men in my family. Therefore, when I model our financial position I use 95 for me and 98 for my spouse as the life expectancy for planning as a hedge to avoid running out of money. However, the results are as good as the models but tend to provide some level of comfort. At retirement I elected to take a reduced pension and a lower benefit to ensure [that] at my death my spouse will receive 50 percent of my pension. To further protect my spouse or benefit our children, in the event my spouse predeceases me I have a $477,000 paid up life insurance policy. Hopefully, all this planning, plus our retirement portfolio, will contain or mitigate our exposures. But, with all this said, I still am not fully comfortable since unknowns are just that: unknown.”

Jeff from Herndon, Va., wonders if he and his wife will outlive their savings. They are planning for a 25-year retirement.

“We are in our mid 50s now and plan to retire at full retirement age of 67,” he wrote. “Seems like we’re doing the right things. Consistently saving over 20 percent of gross income, including employer match. Using ‘robo advisors’ to manage our IRA and retirement plan savings. Making larger payments to pay off all mortgage debt (main plus second used to remodel our home) prior to retirement. My rant is that for every 10 retirement calculators we access, five tell us we’ll be fine (or more than fine), while five suggest we’ll be destitute or at least facing significant lifestyle changes. It would be one thing if they were all directionally-similar, but it’s the disparate results that create the concern. Who’s built the best retirement calculator ‘mousetrap’?”

To Jeff’s point read: 3 Reasons Retirement Calculators Are Wrong, And Why You Should Use Them Anyway

Thanks to Patty Winter of Menlo Park, Calif., for recommending Vanguard’s Monte Carlo Simulation calculator, which helps you estimate how long will your retirement nest egg will last.

Try out the Vanguard calculator or other retirements calculators, and then let me know what you think of your results. Send your comments to

Newsletter Comments Policy
Please note it is my personal policy to identify readers who respond to questions I ask in my newsletters. I find it encourages thoughtful and civil conversation. I want my newsletters to be a safe place to express your opinion. On sensitive matters or upon request, I’m happy to include just your first name and/or last initial. But I prefer not to post anonymous comments (I do make exceptions when I’m asking questions that might reveal sensitive information or cause conflict.)

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