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All About the FICA Tax

Paying taxes can be a real drag. But the government needs the income generated from taxes to provide funding for schools, law enforcement, veterans’ benefits, public projects and various programs. If you earn a wage or a salary, you’ll likely be subject to a federal payroll tax known as the FICA tax. Read on to find out what it is and who’s responsible for paying it.

FICA Taxes: The Basics

Every payday, a portion of your check is withheld by your employer. That money goes to the government in the form of payroll taxes. There are several different types of payroll taxes, including unemployment taxes, income taxes and FICA taxes. Two types of taxes fall under the category of FICA taxes: Medicare taxes and Social Security taxes.

Paying FICA taxes is mandatory for most employees and employers under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act of 1935. The funds are used to pay for both Social Security and Medicare. In 2015, 85% of the income for old-age, survivor and disability insurance and 88% of the money for Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund came from FICA taxes.

If you own a business, you’re responsible for paying Social Security and Medicare taxes, too. For self-employed workers, they’re referred to as SECA taxes (or self-employment taxes) based on regulations included in the Self-Employed Contributions Act.

FICA Tax Rates

All About the FICA Tax

Both SECA and FICA tax rates have increased since they were introduced. Social Security tax rates remained under 3% for employees and employers until the end of 1959. Medicare tax rates rose from 0.35% in 1966 (when they were first implemented) to 1.35% in 1985.

For the past couple of decades, however, FICA tax rates have remained consistent. Employers and employees split the tax. For both of them, the current Social Security and Medicare tax rates are 6.2% and 1.45%, respectively. So each party pays 7.65% of their income, for a total FICA contribution of 15.3%. To calculate your FICA tax burden, you can multiply your gross pay by 7.65%.

Self-employed workers get stuck paying the entire FICA tax on their own. For these individuals, there’s a 12.4% Social Security tax, plus a 2.9% Medicare tax. You can pay this tax when you pay estimated taxes on a quarterly basis. To figure out how much you owe, you can use the worksheet and instructions provided by the IRS for Form 1040-ES.

Fortunately, if you’re self-employed, you’ll get to deduct half of the tax (7.65%) when you file your tax return. The self-employment tax deduction is an above-the-line deduction that you can use to lower your income tax bill. So you can claim it regardless of whether you’re itemizing your deductions or taking the standard deduction.

FICA Wage Base Limits

A wage base limit applies to employees who pay Social Security taxes. This means that gross income above a certain threshold is exempt from this tax. The wage limit changes almost every year based on inflation. For 2016, it was $118,500. For 2017, it’s $127,200. This income ceiling is also the maximum amount of money that’s considered when calculating the size of Social Security benefits.

Medicare taxes, on the other hand, don’t have a wage limit. But there’s an Additional Medicare Tax that high-income individuals must pay. That has been the case since January 1, 2013.

The Additional Medicare Tax rate is 0.9% and it applies to employees’ (and self-employed workers’) wages, salaries and tips. So any part of your income that exceeds a certain amount gets taxed at a rate of 2.35%. That income ceiling is currently $250,000 for married couples filing joint tax returns, $125,000 for couples filing separate tax returns and $200,000 for single filers, qualifying widows and anyone with the head of household filing status. You can calculate how much you owe using Form 8959.

FICA Tax Exemptions

All About the FICA Tax

Just about everyone pays FICA taxes, including resident aliens and many nonresident aliens. It doesn’t matter whether you work part-time or full-time. But there are exceptions.

If you’re in college, for example, you’re exempt from paying FICA taxes on the wages you earn from an on-campus job. Exemptions apply to some nonresident aliens as well, including foreign government employees and teachers. Certain religious groups (like the Amish) may apply for an exemption from FICA taxes by filing IRS Form 4029. But by not paying these payroll taxes, you waive your right to take advantage of Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Overpaying FICA Taxes

Some employees pay more Social Security taxes than they need to. This could happen if you switch jobs more than once and all of your earnings are taxed (even if your combined income exceeds the Social Security wage base limit). Fortunately, you may be able to get a refund when you file your taxes.

If you have multiple jobs, you can claim the Social Security over payment on Form 1040 or Form 1040A. If you owe any taxes, the IRS will use part of your refund to pay them off. Then, you’ll receive whatever is left over. If you overpaid Social Security and you only have one job, you’ll need to ask your employer for a refund. Excess Medicare tax repayments are nonrefundable since there’s no wage base limit.

If you have more than one job, you may underpay the amount of FICA taxes you owe. If that happens, you’ll have to make separate estimated tax payments (unless you asked for additional withholding on your W-4 form).

Bottom Line

FICA taxes are payroll taxes. In most cases, you can’t get around them. And although they take a chunk out of your earnings, they ensure that the Medicare and Social Security programs have enough funding.

While FICA taxes are automatically taken out of your paycheck, you’ll need to pay close attention. That way, you’re not paying more than you’re required to. And if you’re self-employed, you’ll need to use the IRS worksheets to ensure you’re paying the correct amounts.

Update: So many people reached out to us looking for tax and long-term financial planning help, we started our own matching service to help you find a financial advisor. The SmartAdvisor matching tool can help you find a person to work with who meets your needs. After you answer a series of questions about your situation and goals, the program will narrow the options down from thousands of advisors to three fiduciaries who suit your needs. You can then read their profiles to learn more about them, interview them on the phone or in person and choose who to work with in the future. This allows you to find a good fit while the program does much of the hard work for you.

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Amanda Dixon Amanda Dixon is a personal finance writer and editor with an expertise in taxes and banking. She studied journalism and sociology at the University of Georgia. Her work has been featured in Business Insider, AOL, Bankrate, The Huffington Post, Fox Business News, Mashable and CBS News. Born and raised in metro Atlanta, Amanda currently lives in Brooklyn.
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