Tax Planning For Graduated Rates

Tax Planning for Graduated Rates

By John H.W. Cole, Esq.

This article and several that will follow explore the elements of tax planning.  Because a tax plan can be overwhelming when it is all put together my memos will develop the components one at a time.  The first component is taking advantage of graduated tax rates.

Federal Income Taxes are imposed upon Taxable IncomeTaxable Income is Gross Income less allowable deductions and exemptions.  Gross Income is your income from all sources, most commonly wages and investment income.

Example:  Ken and Barbie had a combined Gross Income of $212,700 in 2010.  They had two dependent children which translates into $14,600 of personal exemptions.  They file a joint return, and claim the standard deduction of $11,400.

Their Taxable Income for 2010 was $186,700 ($212,700 of Gross Income reduced by the standard deduction of $11,400 and personal exemptions of $14,600).

For 2010, the tax rates were as follows for married taxpayers filing jointly.

Taxable Income

  •                                                                                                                            of the
  •     But Not                                                      Base                   % on              amount
  •      Over                        Over                          Tax                Excess                over—
  • $         0                    $   16,750                           $0                     10%                    $0
  •   16,750                         68,000                 1,675.00                     15%             16,750
  •   68,000                       137,300                 9,362.50                      25%            68,000
  • 137,300                       209,250               26,687.50                      28%          137,300
  • 209,250                       373,650               46,833.50                      33%          209,250

Ken and Barbie’s 2010 taxes were determined as follows:

  •                             Income                 Tax                        Rate                                                            
  • On their first   $   26,400                      0                           0% (offset by exemptions & deductions)
  • On their next       16,750                1,675                         10%
  • On their next       51,250                7,688                         15%
  • On their next       69,300              17,325                         25%
  • On their next       49,000              13,720                         28%
  • Totals:           $  212,700           $ 40,408

Suppose that Ken had set up a qualified plan and deferred $49,000 into it.  Ken and Barbie’s federal taxes would now be determined as follows:

  •                            Income                  Tax                         Rate                                                          
  • On their first   $  26,400                       0                           0% (offset by exemptions & deductions)
  • On their next      16,750                1,675                         10%
  • On their next      51,250                7,688                         15%
  • On their next      69,300              17,325                         25%
  • Totals:           $ 163,700           $ 26,688

By deferring $49,000 into a qualified plan, Ken and Barbie would avoid paying $13,720 in federal income taxes.   If they lived in a state with a state income tax, like Vermont (9%), they could save another $4,410 in state income taxes.  By avoiding paying payroll taxes on the $49,000 they would save another $1,421.  Their total tax savings would be a combined $19,551.

Flash forward to 2011 when Ken and Barbie retire.  Assume the same exemptions and the use of the standard deduction.  They withdraw the $49,000 from the plan.  Their taxes are determined as follows:

  •                                           Income                           Tax                Rate                                                           
  • On their first              $       26,400                               0                   0% (offset by exemptions & deductions)
  • On their next                      16,750                        1,675                 10%
  • On the remaining                5,850                            878                 15%
  • Total                          $      49,000                     $  2,553

The $49,000 of retirement plan income would not be subject to payroll taxes.  In Vermont it would not be subject to state income taxes because it is below the state income tax threshold. Accordingly the tax savings from delaying a year would be $16,998.  In Virginia, which imposes a state income tax on this amount of income, the tax savings would be slightly less, at $15,698.

Of course, Ken and Barbie may have other sources of income when they retire. However, the above example assumed retirement the following year, so a similar amount of outside income would have been present in both 2010 and 2011.  An additional $40,000 of investment income would change their top bracket to 33% in 2010, while in 2011 an additional $40,000 would still be taxed at only 15%.

Furthermore, the example does not take into account the fact that tax brackets are indexed and that any increase in tax rates would only take place at very high income levels.  In 1993 the 28% bracket for joint filers was $36,900 of taxable income.  Today the 28% bracket starts at $137,650 of taxable income.

Let’s go back to the beginning and assume that Ken and Barbie did not defer the $49,000.  Instead they paid their payroll taxes, and state and federal income taxes, and invested the money for 20 years, and enjoyed a 6% return.  At the end of 10 years they would have accumulated $66,496, after taxes.

Sheltered in a qualified plan, the same $49,000 would have become $112,596, almost double.

Assume they took the entire $112,596 out at once, as their only income for the year, and that brackets never went up (although in fact they do).  Their taxes would be determined as follows:

  •                            Income                             Tax                         Rate                                                           
  • On their first   $   26,400                                 0                           0% (offset by exemptions & deductions)
  • On their next       16,750                          1,675                         10%
  • On their next       51,250                          7,688                         15%
  • On their next       18,196                          4,549                         25%
  • Totals:            $ 112,596                     $ 13,912

They would have $98,685 in after tax dollars to live on for the year, compared with $66,496 from investing on the outside.

The first lesson of this example is that some of your income isn’t taxed at all.  Secondly, that which is subject to tax is taxed progressively starting with low tax rates.  Third, significant taxes can be saved by shifting income from high tax rate years to lower tax rate years.  The tax planning objective is to move income out of the 25%-33% federal bracket and 9% state bracket into the 15% federal bracket and 0-4% state income tax bracket.

The final lesson is that because of reduced income, rising brackets, or both, the low tax bracket years for most of us lie further down the road, when we retire, or at least slow down.  The way to retire with the greatest amount of income is to take advantage of tax deferral vehicles, such as IRAs, SEPS, and qualified retirement plans.

For further information, comments, or questions, contact me at

In my next Article:  Payroll taxes and the new Medicare Surtaxes