How to Calculate a Pension's Taxable Amount

by Cynthia Gaffney ; Updated August 10, 2018

Funds in your pension plan typically consist of pretax dollars, meaning you'll need to pay taxes on all of the money once you start receiving payments in retirement. In some cases, though, you might have already paid taxes on a portion of the funds, if you made after-tax contributions to your plan while still working. To figure out the taxable and nontaxable portions of your pension payments, the IRS requires that you use one of two different methods, the General Rule or the Simplified Method.

Simplified Method Worksheet and Calculations

Pension plans are retirement benefit plans provided through an employer, typically paying regular payments during an individual's retirement to help replace a paycheck. The payments come from an investment fund that the individual, or his employer, contributed to during his working years. Pension payments factor in an employee's prior compensation and years of service to his employer.

The payment amounts you receive from your pension are fully taxable if you made no investment in the contract, and you'll receive an IRS Form 1099-R each year showing the total distribution you've received. Many pension programs are fully funded by employers. If you did not make any contributions to your pension with after-tax dollars, or if you received your contributions on a tax-free basis in prior years, all of your pension income will be taxable.

Conversely, you won't pay taxes on a portion of your pension payments if you made contributions to your account with after-tax dollars. In other words, you don't have to pay taxes twice on the part of your contributions or payments that consist of a return of these after-tax payments made during your working years.

For nonqualified pension plans, you must use the General Rule method instead of the IRS simplified method to figure out the taxable and tax-free portions of your pension payments. IRS Publication 939, General Rule for Pensions and Annuities, provides the calculation and other required information to help you figure your taxable portion. The formula is fairly straightforward if you expect to get payments for a set number of years. However, if you expect payments for the rest of your life, you'll need to also use a factor from the actuarial tables provided in Publication 939.

Exceptions for Pre-1997 Pensions

Individuals with pensions started after Nov. 18, 1996, must generally use the retirement plan income Simplified Method to calculate the taxable and nontaxable portions of their pension payments. However, if you're 75 or older, and your annuity or pension payments are guaranteed for more than five years, you'll still need to use the General Rule method.

You can complete the Simplified Method work sheet, located in the IRS Form 1040 Instruction book, for lines 16a and 16b, or Form 1040A Instructions for lines 12a and 12b. You can also use the work sheet in the back of IRS Publication 575, Pension and Annuity Income. You'll need to know your total payments received for the year, any investment you've made in the pension, and any amounts you've recovered tax-free in prior years. The IRS work book provides a step-by-step formula, including a table of numerical divisors to account for the age when you started taking payments, and the date your pension plan started payments.

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2018 Tax Benefits to Retirees

Although you will still pay taxes on your pension, you'll get a bit of a break, thanks to the 2018 tax law changes. Those over the age of 65 will not only benefit from the $12,000 standard deduction but an additional $1,600. The tax brackets have also been lowered, which means you may pay less on any income you get in 2018.

Filing Your 2017 Taxes

If you're filing your 2017 taxes, you'll see a $6,350 standard deduction and a $1,550 deduction if you're over the age of 65.

About the Author

Cynthia Gaffney has spent over 20 years in finance with experience in valuation, corporate financial planning, mergers & acquisitions consulting and small business ownership. She has worked as a financial writer and editor for several online finance and small business publications since 2011. A Southern California native, Cynthia received her Bachelor of Science degree in finance and business economics from USC.

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