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Bigger paychecks could have bigger tax bill, experts warn

Bigger paychecks could mean big headaches for some taxpayers, experts warn.
Image: IRS W-4 form
An IRS W-4 form on Feb. 1, 2018. Workers are starting to see more take-home pay as employers implement the new withholding guidelines from the IRS.Barbara Woike / AP

Americans could start seeing a bump in their paychecks as early as this week thanks to the new tax legislation, but lurking in that extra $50 or $100 is the prospect of a big tax bill come April 2019 for some taxpayers.

On January 11, the IRS published revised withholding tables, which payroll administrators use as guidelines when determining how much of a worker’s paycheck should be set aside to pay federal income taxes. The use of these tables is being phased in over the next couple of weeks; exactly when a worker might notice a difference in take-home pay depends on how often and when they are paid, the agency said.

“The new tables reflect the increase in the standard deduction, repeal of personal exemptions and changes in tax rates and brackets,” the IRS said in its announcement.

Tax professionals say the changes to how Americans’ taxes are calculated are so sweeping that many people could unwittingly under-withhold if they go along with how the new tables are applied to their W-4.

“Treasury made some assumptions, and it was kind of a leap,” said Pete Isberg, vice president of government relations for payroll processing giant ADP. The IRS is in relatively uncharted territory, trying to overlay the new tax framework on top of a very different structure with its use of new withholding tables on workers’ old W-4s, he said.

The IRS said that the new tables are intended to take into account the higher standard deduction, loss of exemptions and new rates and brackets,

But “the exemptions being gone and the increased standard deduction affect your withholding,” said Michele Schlereth, partner with Schlereth Tax and Accounting Group LLC. Although the IRS has tried to account for this in its new withholding tables, tax experts warn that it’s a moving target.

For anxious workers there's not yet an easy formula or online calculator they can punch their situation into.

“The amount of the difference will change based on the amount paid in each check, the total annual wages, and their filing status,” Schlereth said. “I don’t think there is a formula you can use that will cover all scenarios,” especially due to major changes around exemptions and deductions.

The IRS said that new W-4 forms, along with its online calculator, will be able to help taxpayers more accurately calculate their correct withholdings for the current tax year. The agency said the calculator should be available by the end of the month and said the new W-4 form should be ready “soon.”

People who don’t itemize, don’t have a lot of kids and have simple tax returns are the group least-likely to be significantly affected by the changes — although they are unlikely to get back a significantly larger refund than before. “It’s kind of a wash,” Schlereth said. “Lower tax brackets and a higher standard deduction mean you’d get a higher refund, but you get it across the whole year in your paycheck.”

One thing it’s important to note is that while the IRS is aiming to prevent over- or under-withholding, many taxpayers today deliberately choose to have more than necessary withheld in order to get a refund. (Roughly four in five taxpayers receive a refund, according to the agency.)

The IRS suggested that all taxpayers check their withholding when the updated calculator and W-4 are available. People with more complicated tax situations, such as homeowners and others who itemize, people who changed jobs over the course of the year and couples who hold multiple jobs between them, should be particularly vigilant about checking their withholdings to avoid an unpleasant surprise.

“It’s great to see your paycheck increase, but you might want to talk to a tax professional,” said Michael Sonnenblick, editor and author with Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting. This is especially important for taxpayers who itemize and take a lot of deductions. “If you live in a state that has high state and local taxes and you itemize, you’ll probably be paying more taxes this year,” he said.