Why Your Take Home Pay Looks Messed Up

Payroll check stub

Photo by Christopher Titzer

The number one question I’m getting these days (okay, besides how big will my refund be?) is “What happened to my take home pay?”  Hopefully, I’ve got some answers for you.

We’ve all heard that Congress voted not to increase our payroll taxes, but it looks like there’s more federal withholding being taken out of your paycheck.  What’s up with that?  Well, the income tax rate didn’t go up, but the “Making Work Pay” credit was taken out.  Because that credit it gone, your payroll withholding has gone up (somewhere between $400 and $800 per year depending on your filing status.)

The other change that we’ve heard about is that the Social Security withholding went down from 6.2% to 4.2%.  This makes your payroll withholding go down.  Depending upon how much you make, this might give you more take home pay than before, for others, it’s the opposite.  (Here’s a clue, the more money you make, the bigger this deduction will seem.)

If you get a pension, and not wages, the increase in the withholding will hit you harder because you don’t have social security withholding.

Now for many people, the payroll tax changes were not set up correctly for their first paychecks of the year.  Please don’t blame your payroll department; the changes came so late in the year, that computer programs were not programmed for the new rules.  This made for some crazy adjustments that showed up in later checks.  Hopefully, by now, your paycheck should be normal.

It’s always a good idea to check to make sure your payroll withholding is right.  The IRS has a withholding calculator that you can use to see if you’re on target for next tax season.  You might want to wait another week or so to make sure that all of the payroll adjustments are done and that you’ve got a “normal” check to look at before running the numbers through the calculator.  If you use a check with “adjustments” in it, the numbers will be crazy so make sure you’ve got at least two checks in a row that have the same withholding numbers in them.

What To Do If You Don’t Have Your W2

It’s important to have your W2s before you try to file your income tax return.  If you take your taxes to a professional, it’s against the law for us to file a return without having a copy of your W2 in our files.  So what do you do if you don’t have yours yet?

Well first, your employer has until January 31st to send your W2 out.  By now, you really should have it.  If it’s still missing, here’s what you need to do:

Call your employer.  That’s the easiest solution.  Give them a reasonable amount of time for it to arrive in the mail, but usually that will take care of the problem.  It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t like you or you left under bad circumstances, he has to give it to you—it’s the law.

 If calling your employer doesn’t help, and you have not received your W2 by February 14th, then you need to call the IRS.  You’ll be calling the main line at 1 800 829-1040.  They’re going to ask a lot of questions so be prepared to give them your name, address, city and state, zip code, social security number, and phone number.  Then, you’re also going to give them your employer’s name, address, city and state, zip code and phone number.  Plus, you’re going to need to give them your dates of employment, an estimate of the wages you earned, the federal income tax that was withheld, and when you worked for that employer during 2010.  Basically, you’re going to get that information off of your final pay stub.  The numbers are going to be off of the “year to date” column.

 After you’ve done steps one and two, then you can file your tax return.  You’re going to use a form called a 4852.  It works as a substitute for your W2.  All the information that you called in to the IRS, is going to go on the form 4852 again.  Warning -your refund will probably be delayed until the IRS can verify the payroll information provided.  (This is why it’s so important to try to get the W2 from your employer first.  If you’re getting a refund you don’t want it to be delayed.)

 Sometimes, people receive the missing W2 after they’ve filed the form 4852 and the information is different.  If that happens to you, you need to file an amended return (form 1040X.)    This doesn’t happen all the time, I just mention it so that you know in case it does happen to you.

 One thing that’s important to remember is that you are supposed to report all of your income, even if you didn’t receive your W2.  You can’t just take a late W2 and put it on next year’s taxes.  It can get you into trouble if you try that so please don’t.  Also, you might not receive your W2, but the IRS probably did.  If you file a return without your missing W2, but the IRS does get the W2, then you could get a nasty little letter from them about why didn’t you report all of your income?  And what’s even worse, in my opinion, is if filing the W2 would have gotten you a bigger refund.  The IRS usually doesn’t bother you if they owe you; it’s usually the other way around.  So be sure to have all of your paperwork before you file, you don’t want to miss a thing.