George Robertson, CFP, CRPS, AIF

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Avoiding Underpayment Penalties

Congress considers our tax system as a "pay-as-you-go" system. To facilitate that concept, the government has provided several means of assisting taxpayers in meeting the "pay-as-you-go" requirement. These include:

  • Payroll withholding for employers;
  • Pension withholding for retirees; and
  • Estimated tax payments for self-employed individuals and those with other sources of income not covered by withholding.

When a taxpayer fails to prepay a safe harbor (minimum) amount, they can be subject to the underpayment penalty. This penalty is 2% higher than the prime rate and the penalty is computed on a quarter-by-quarter basis.

Federal tax law does provide ways to avoid the underpayment penalty. If the underpayment is less than a de-minimis amount, no penalty is assessed. The de-minimis amount is $1,000. This means, if you owe $1,000 or less on your tax return, you will not be subject to the federal underpayment penalty. In addition, the law provides "safe harbor" prepayments. There are two safe harbors:

  1. The first safe harbor is based on the tax you owe in the current year. If your payments equal or exceed 90% of what you owe in the current year, you can escape a penalty.
  2. The second safe harbor is based on the tax you owed in the immediately preceding tax year. If your payments equal or exceed 110% of what you owed in the prior year, you can escape a penalty.

Example: Suppose your tax for the year is $10,000, and your prepayments for the year total $5,800. The result is that you owe an additional $4,400 on your tax return. To find out if you owe a penalty, see if you meet the first safe harbor exception. Since 90% of $10,000 is $9,000, your prepayments fell short of the mark. You can't avoid the penalty under this exception.

However, in the above example, the safe harbor may still apply. Assume your prior year tax was $5,000. Since you prepaid $5,800, which is greater than the 110% of the prior year's tax (110% = $5,500), you qualify for this safe harbor and can escape the penalty.

This example underscores the importance of making sure your prepayments are adequate, especially if you have a large increase in income. This is common when there is a large gain from the sale of stocks, sale of property, when large bonuses are paid, when a taxpayer retires, etc.