Skip to Content
Financial Basics

Income Taxes

Make tax time a little less taxing

Learn how the income tax system works, what goes into calculating your taxes, and how you can plan to minimize your tax liability. 

woman on laptop

Intro to income tax

How is your income tax determined?

Computing your income tax is a multi-step process. Here is a general overview of the steps.

Step 1: Subtract above-the-line-deductions from your total income to determine your adjusted gross income.

Step 2: Subtract below-the-line-deductions from your adjusted gross income to determine your taxable income.

Step 3: Your taxable income is used to calculate your federal income tax.

Terms defined:

Total income includes salary, other income, interest, dividends, capital gains, retirement plan distributions

Above-the-line-deductions include certain retirement contributions and health insurance deductions.

Adjusted gross income (AGI): Determines how your income is taxed and your benefits from certain itemized deductions

Below-the-line-deductions: Standard or itemized deductions (e.g., medical expenses, mortgage and investment interest expenses)

 

Things to consider

 

You can’t avoid paying taxes, but you can better understand them – and minimize their impact where you can.

 

  • Determine your total income and how to reduce your taxes on that income. (For example, contribute as much as possible to an employer-sponsored retirement plan.)
  • Work with your tax advisor to understand whether you are required to pay estimated tax payments quarterly.
  • If you receive a large refund, adjust your withholding or estimated tax payments so you have more money in an account earning interest.
  • If you are going to take out a large loan, or make a big investment, discuss the tax and cash flow implications with your financial team and tax advisors.
3 people working at a table

Tax terms

Itemized deductions

You may be able to deduct all or a portion of certain expenses if you itemize your deductions. These include: medical expenses, state income tax and real estate taxes, mortgage and investment interest expenses, charitable donations and  investment expenses.

Credits

Credits reduce your actual tax liability. For instance, if you paid $100 in foreign taxes on investment income, you may be able to claim a $100 credit on your tax return, reducing your total liability by the amount of the credit.

Standard deduction

You are allowed a simplified deduction, called the "standard deduction" if you do not itemize your deductions. For 2020, the standard deduction is $12,400 for single taxpayers and $24,800 for married taxpayers filing jointly.

Alternative minimum tax

The alternative minimum tax ensures that taxpayers pay a minimum in taxes each year. All taxpayers have to calculate their tax liability twice — the standard way and again for the alternative minimum tax. The taxpayer then pays the higher liability amount of the two.

Should you itemize deductions?

Generally, you’ll want to itemize if it will allow you to deduct more expenses than the standard deduction — which is a fixed amount generally based on your filing status. 

2 people working on a laptop in an office

Tax FAQ's

1. Do I pay income tax on everything I receive? There are exceptions, but in general, you do not pay federal income tax on gifts, most inheritances, insurance proceeds, some distributions from trusts and partnerships, child support, alimony payments made under post-2018 agreements (check to see if the laws of the state you live in are different), and interest received from investments in municipal bonds.

2. Will all of my income be taxed at the same rate? Some income receives special treatment and may be either tax-exempt or taxed at lower rates. For example:

  • Municipal bond interest is generally not taxed for federal income tax purposes.
  • Most dividends and long-term capital gains are taxed at 15% or 20% rates.

3. What’s included in itemized deductions? Although subject to a variety of rules and limitations, the following may be included:

  • Medical expenses
  • State income and real estate taxes
  • Mortgage and investment interest expenses
  • Charitable donations

If the total of your itemized deductions is more than your standard deduction, you can itemize your deductions for a greater tax benefit.

4. Can I pay all of my taxes on April 15? If you have any of the following, you may need to make quarterly estimated tax payments. (Look for income you received where there is no tax withholding.)

  • Self-employment income
  • Substantial investment income
  • Trust distributions
  • Other forms of gross income

5. When will I get my refund? If you file electronically, and have your refund direct deposited into your checking account, you can expect your return within a few weeks. If you file a paper return or don’t choose direct deposit, it may take six weeks or more.

6. How long should I keep my tax returns? Keep your returns and backup materials (federal and state if applicable) for at least seven years.

TOP