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A Guide to Tax Withholding Allowances

When you file Form W-4, your employer uses this information to withhold the correct federal income tax from your pay. Withholding allowances vary from person to person based on a number of circumstances, including:

  • Whether you're married or single.
  • If you're single and have only one job.
  • If you're married, have only one job, and your spouse doesn't work.
  • If your wages from a second job or your spouse's wages are $1,500 or less.
  • If you have at least $2,000 of child- or dependent-care expenses and will claim a credit for these costs.
  • If you'll file your return as a head of household.

The more withholding allowances you claim, the less tax is withheld from your wages. If you don't file a W-4, your employer must withhold tax from your wages at the highest rate. It'll be as though you're single with zero allowances.

If you're a parent, you'll claim child credits worth up to $1,000 for each eligible child. The number of withholding allowances you claim depends on the number of your eligible children and your income.

The IRS might ask your employer for your W-4 depending on your number of tax withholding allowances. If the IRS questions the number of exemptions you claim, you’ll have to justify your claim.

Changing Your Withholding Allowances

Since your circumstances might change from time to time, it's important to review your tax withholding allowances on a regular basis.

Life changes that might determine your withholding allowances include:

  • Marriage or divorce
  • Birth or adoption of a child
  • Purchase of a new home
  • Retirement
  • New job or second job
  • Increase in interest, dividend, or self-employment income
  • Increase in your itemized deductions

In 2015, each withholding allowance you claim reduces your taxable income by $4,000. If you claim more allowances than you have a reasonable basis for, the IRS can penalize you.

To help determine how many tax withholding allowances you should claim, it might help to look at your returns or payments from previous years. If you received a large refund, consider increasing the number of allowances you claim so less tax is withheld. If you paid the IRS a large sum when you filed your return, decrease the number of allowances you claim. An H&R Block professional can help answer any further tax withholding questions you might have.

Is Anyone Exempt From Withholding?

You must have tax withholding if all of these apply:

  • Your income for 2015 is more than $1,050.
  • Another person can claim you as a dependent on his or her return.
  • You have more than $350 of unearned income. Unearned income includes interest on savings accounts and mutual fund dividends.

You can make much more and still be exempt from withholding if no one can claim you as a dependent.

If you owed no federal tax last year and expect to owe none this year, you might be exempt from withholding. For 2015, a single person who isn't a dependent can have as much as $10,300 in gross income before any tax is due.

Working Couples and Withholding

If both you and your spouse are employed, figure the total allowances you’re both entitled to. Then, divide those total allowances between you and your spouse. The W-4 has a special worksheet for two-earner couples. It helps you and your spouse figure the number of allowances you should each claim based on each income.

Withholding and Retirement Income

You can have federal income taxes withheld from your:

  • Pension
  • Annuity
  • Traditional IRA withdrawals
  • Social Security benefits

With other retirement plans, you might need to file a form with the payer to stop required withholding. If you don’t complete withholding forms for pension benefits, taxes will be withheld like you were married and had three exemptions. So, taxes will only be withheld if your pension is at least $1,680 per month.

You should re-evaluate each year to see if you want to have taxes withheld. Use W-4P to have taxes withheld from your:

  • Pension
  • Annuities
  • IRAs

Use W-4V: Voluntary Withholding Request to have taxes withheld from Social Security. Choose one of these rates for Social Security withholding:

  • 7%
  • 10%
  • 15%
  • 25%

To learn more, see Publication 505: Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax at

Lump-Sum Pension Payout

You might have received a lump-sum payment from your retirement plan. If so, the plan administrator must withhold 20% for federal income taxes.

You can roll the money over into an IRA or another tax-free pension plan yourself. If so, the tax withholding requirement is 20%. This applies even if you retire, quit, or are laid off. If 20% is withheld, you’d be prepaying tax you might not owe. You probably won’t owe it if you roll over the distribution within 60 days.

You could handle the rollover yourself by taking the check and depositing it in a rollover IRA within 60 days. If you do:

  • Your plan administrator will withhold 20% of your distribution.
  • You might include the amount equal to the 20% withholding from another source. If you don’t, you won't have enough to put the full payment into an IRA.
  • The IRS will tax any part of the gross distribution that's not rolled into an IRA within 60 days. You could also be penalized for this.

You can avoid the 20% withholding by doing a direct rollover. To do a direct rollover:

  1. Tell your employer you want to roll the funds over directly to another plan or IRA.
  2. Provide your employer with the information about the account that will receive the rollover funds.
  3. Your employer will transfer the funds directly to the other account without withholding any taxes.

If done this way, the transaction will be tax-free for you.

Tips and Withholding

All tips you receive are taxable income subject to withholding. If you receive $20 or more per month in tips, report that income to your employer.

Tip income you report will show up on your W-2, Box 7 (Social Security tips) and Box 1 (Wages). To learn more, see the Tip Income tax tip.

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